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Greening the recovery: the report of the UCL Green Economy Policy Commission

By Henry Rummins, on 27 February 2014

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“We need to recognise the fierce urgency of now,” declared Professor Paul Ekins at the opening of the launch of the UCL Green Economy Policy Commission’s Greening the recovery report, in what appeared to be the beginning of an impassioned rallying cry for a radical overhaul of the UK’s economy.

Instead, Professor Ekins pointed out that this was a soundbite uttered by the Chancellor George Osborne five years ago.

By repeating it, his aim was to sound a note of caution about the likelihood that the recommendations by UCL’s Green Economy Policy Commission – comprising a range of UCL, visiting, and external academics – would be adopted.

This was despite the fact that the panel of experts brought together to discuss the report all broadly agreed that its objective of a greener economy was laudable, even if they didn’t agree on how to get there.

Professor Ekins set out his vision for a greener economy as a starter, including the pressing need for change in the face of three billion more middle class consumers worldwide by the mid-21st century.

He outlined that a green economy would safeguard environmental sustainability and human wellbeing through securing climate stability, maintain resource security and guarantee environmental quality.

In sum, he said, a green economy would do little to pollute the environment yet still offer the highly productive use of resources.

With the tentative signs of an economic recovery growing stronger, now was the time to direct the economy towards sustainable growth, Professor Ekins said.

He argued that the way forward was through investing heavily in the infrastructure and technological innovations that would make it easier for people and businesses to adopt green behaviours and practices.

In contrast, a critical voice came from Martin Wolf, one of the foremost writers on economics in the world and a columnist at the Financial Times. He said that, while he agreed in principle with what the report was advocating, he had difficulty with some of its more optimistic assumptions – not least that it seemed to offer an illusionary panacea of a green economy where “you can have more of everything and less of nothing,” which, in his view, was wishful thinking.

He was likewise unpersuaded by Professor Ekins’ argument that the UK’s world-leading example of transitioning to a green economy, should the report be implemented, would act as a green beacon to inspire the rest of the world to follow suit. “Rationally, people will be free riders,” he said.

Similarly cautionary was the Department of Energy & Climate Change’s Chief Economist Steven Fries. While again agreeing that the basis for the report was not in doubt, and remarking that “the weight of evidence shows this is the right direction of travel,” he, nonetheless, expressed reservations.

In particular, he was concerned about the about the optimistic assumptions made about how quickly renewable energy and other resource-reducing technologies could be deployed and – because of this – whether the suggestion of the report that such deployment could support economic recovery was realistic.

Gus O’Donnell, the ex-head of the Civil Service and now a visiting Professor in UCL’s Department of Political Science chaired the debate. He emphasised the difficulty of sometimes persuading politicians to adopt policy measures that are right – as well as beneficial to both business and the public purse.

Indeed, it was the assessment that the dire political context is kyboshing any hope of a greener economy in the future that united the disparate voices on the panel, and perhaps sounded the most pessimistic note for the whole evening’s discussion.

In contrast, the strongest note of optimism came from Gus O’Donnell in closing the evening’s discussion. In his view, the behaviour of the young already seemed more sustainable than that of his generation. Given the youth of a sizeable chunk of the audience listening to him from across the UCL community, I was left with a feeling that he could be right – and if he is, the recommendations of the report could be a more likely reality.

 

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