‘Low carbon’ is code for low ambitions

The UK’s new climate change plan shows how the green ethos is used to add a gloss of respectability to economic and visionary failure.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Given its isolation, unpopularity and dysfunctional relationship with ‘the vision thing’, it seems highly unlikely that Gordon Brown’s government is capable of starting a revolution. Yet that, apparently, is what it did yesterday.

Ed Miliband, the UK climate change secretary, unveiled the government’s plans for cutting carbon emissions in the UK by 34 per cent by 2020 and by 80 per cent by 2050. In the fields of manufacturing, energy production, transport and housing, revealed Miliband in 650 pages of shiny manifestos and strategy documents, carbon-use will be slashed. Commentators were overjoyed, describing it as ‘nothing less than a green industrial revolution’, which might rank as ‘one of the most important moments in British economic history’ (1).

Steady on. There is nothing remotely revolutionary about Miliband’s plans. And the only sense in which they are historic is that they represent – albeit in a coded, PC fashion – Britain’s disavowal of its own industrial history and its final embrace of the slow life, low ambitions and the realities of economic failure. Miliband’s vision, or rather anti-vision, reveals what the politics of low carbon is really all about: accommodating to the economic downturn and to the dearth of big plans for the future.

Where growing and aspirational nations like China and India produce carbon – which is simply the byproduct of large-scale energy production and manufacturing – sluggish and increasingly insignificant nations like Britain produce less carbon, or no carbon, or now, in the words of Miliband, ‘low carbon’: codeword for a nation that isn’t doing very much at all. Miliband’s plans expose how the green ethos can be used to add a gloss of respectability to already-existing economic and visionary failure.

In many ways, the documents published by Miliband yesterday represented a bizarre celebration of Britain’s slowdown, particularly in manufacturing, over the past 15 to 20 years. In the kind of green lingo that excites officials and commentators, Miliband effectively boasted about the fact that Britain is producing and building fewer tangible things today than it was in 1990. He outlined how New Labour has committed Britain to cutting carbon emissions by 34 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020, and then said we are already more than half way to achieving that goal. ‘We’ve already achieved around a 21 per cent cut since 1990’, his factsheet said, ‘[which is the] equivalent of cutting emissions entirely from four cities the size of London’ (2).

But it is deeply disingenuous to present a 21 per cent fall in carbon emissions since 1990, the equivalent of getting rid of four Londons, as a product of some conscious, profound desire to rein in carbon-use and make the nation cleaner. Such a reduction in emissions was not brought about by the erection of a few windfarms off the south coast of England or the introduction of bin-monitoring recycling policies in the cities; more fundamentally, it reflects the contraction of manufacturing in Britain and the creeping replacement of a one-time productive economy with a services-based economy, aspects of which are not productive at all (especially the financial services sector).

Over the same period now presented by Miliband as the Glorious Era of Low Carbon, the British economy underwent huge changes. In 1986, manufacturing made up around 21 per cent of British economic activity; today it accounts for only 13 per cent. At the same time, the service side of the economy grew enormously: in 1975 services accounted for 55 per cent of British GDP; today they account for 75 per cent (3).

The post-1990 fall in carbon emissions, the effective winding down of four cities, was brought about by the closure of the remaining coalpits, the shutting up of factories, the export of car manufacturing overseas (most notoriously, with the sale of MG Rover Group for a song to Nanjing Automobile Group in 2005), and so on. All that the 21 per cent reduction in CO2 really tells us, in any meaningful sense, is that Britain is producing less real stuff today; it has fewer and fewer workers whose job is to create real, tangible things and who in the process emit the byproduct of carbon. A services-based economy tends to be ‘cleaner’ than a manufacturing-based economy. Miliband is cynically presenting manufacturing downturn, and all the job losses and city and community deprivation that go along with it, as a brilliant central-government strategy to ‘clean up Britain’ (4).

When it comes to planning for the future, Miliband’s documents show how ‘building a low-carbon Britain’ is justification for ditching big plans. Between now and 2020, when 34 per cent of CO2 emissions will have been cut, Miliband envisages that a whopping 50 per cent of that cut will be in the ‘power and heavy industry’ sector, compared with 20 per cent in transport, 15 per cent in homes, 10 per cent in workplaces, and five per cent in agriculture (5). It is striking, and also rather predictable, that the climate change secretary of a nation that was once the ‘workshop of the world’ but which now carries out less and less manufacturing should envision the biggest fall in CO2 emissions taking place in heavy industry. What he really means is that fewer things will be done in that area in the next 10, 20 or 30 years; but, rather than seeing that as a potential problem he celebrates it as part of the process of creating a new kind of world-beating low-carbon nation.

There is a glaring contradiction in some of Miliband’s plans. He opportunistically celebrates the lower carbon levels that have fundamentally resulted from the sclerosis of properly productive activity, yet doesn’t realise that such sclerosis is likely to impact even on his low-carbon plans. For example, in order to cut CO2 emissions in the energy sector, Miliband proposes building vastly more windfarms and new nuclear power stations (he can keep his windfarms, but more nuclear is a very good idea). However, earlier this year Vestas, the wind turbine manufacturer, closed its major factory on the Isle of Wight, with the loss of 600 jobs, and cited lack of investment and too much red tape in planning procedures as the main problem (6). In response to Miliband’s nuclear proposals, energy companies have complained that, actually, Britain is not conducive to big building projects right now, because everything gets tied up in endless judicial reviews and public consultations (7).

In short, Britain’s general lack of manufacturing-based productivity has made the country ‘cleaner’, yes, but it has also made it far harder to get anything done. A lack of investment in manufacturing and big build projects has lowered carbon, but it has also lowered the chances of making things happen speedily and effectively. The irony is too much: Britain is low carbon because it produces less stuff, and it is that very lack of productivity that might hamper some of Miliband’s plans to make Britain even more low carbon, for example by building new nuclear power stations.

In transport and house-building, too, the low-carbon approach has clearly become a way of presenting the death of vision as something wonderful. Yesterday the minister for transport, Lord Adonis, spelt out his vision for a low-carbon transport system: his plan is not to overhaul roads, build more motorways or lay down vastly more railtracks, but rather to play around with the vehicles that travel on the already-existing creaking infrastructure. So he will introduce tougher regulation of cars that emit a lot of CO2, perhaps taxing their drivers more than others, and will spend £250million on customer incentives designed to promote electric cars. He also wants to create ‘sustainable travel cities’: places where people travel by foot or by bike (8). Here, Britain’s lack of transport vision, its abandonment of road-building and infrastructure investment over the past 10 to 15 years, is re-presented as part of the big, conscious plan for a low-carbon future.

In housing, where 10 per cent of the planned CO2 cuts will happen between now and 2020, there is not nearly enough talk of building the millions of new homes that Britain needs. Instead there is a headline focus on monitoring how we all live in the homes we have right now. One plan is to put ‘smart electricity meters’ in 26million homes, so that we can measure how much energy we’re using: those who use small amounts will be rewarded with financial incentives. This is probably what Lord Mandelson meant yesterday, when he said the big low-carbon project would ‘reshape our lives’ (9).

The Miliband plan reveals something profound about the politics of environmentalism: it justifies, even celebrates, underdevelopment and lack of investment in infrastructure, but in the dishonest language of ‘low carbon’ and ‘cleaner futures’. This is the opposite of revolutionary. Indeed, the government’s adoption of a new language that effectively heralds Britain’s position as a slow, meek and visionless nation is, in many ways, the final nail in the coffin of the industrial revolution that gave birth to modern Britain.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons mocked the UK government’s climate change report. He also wondered why everyone was talking about climate change as a warlike emergency.Tim Black disagreed with Ed Miliband’s aim of making opposition to windfarms as socially unacceptable as not wearing a seatbelt. Mick Hume did not appreciate the British government’s Stern lifestyle lecture. James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky described how the IPCC’s fairly sober summary of climate science was spun into a man-made morality tale. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) Green revolution left blowing in the wind, Daily Telegraph, 15 July 2009

(2) Low carbon way to ‘reshape lives’, BBC News, 15 July 2009

(3) The UK Economy: Analysis of Long-Term Performance and Strategic Challenges, Her Majesty’s Treasury, 2008

(4) Low carbon way to ‘reshape lives’, BBC News, 15 July 2009

(5) Low carbon way to ‘reshape lives’, BBC News, 15 July 2009

(6) Energy firms warn UK wind farms, nuclear plants face planning delays, Power Engineering Magazine, 15 July 2009

(7) Energy firms warn UK wind farms, nuclear plants face planning delays, Power Engineering Magazine, 15 July 2009

(8) The road ahead is green, Comment Is Free, 15 July 2009

(9) Low carbon way to ‘reshape lives’, BBC News, 15 July 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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