Green Economy Council: a call to action, or paralysis by analysis?
16th February 2011

Today, the Government’s new Green Economy Council meets, with a brief to look at how government and business can work together to “rise to the low-carbon challenge”. I don’t know whether to cheer or weep.

Over the past decade, there have been no fewer than ten official government Reviews, Councils and Taskforces into the green economy or sustainable production and consumption. I’ve listed them at the end of this post. The Green Economy Council is, at a pretty conservative reckoning, number eleven. That’s one a year, not even counting the reviews of energy and climate change policy, including the three energy white papers and two climate change reviews.

All the reviews have said more or less the same thing, in different ways. To paraphrase all ten:

  • There is money to be made from a green economy
  • Government needs to show leadership, and set a clear framework for transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy
  • The polluters need to pay more, and the solutions need to pay less – through tax shifts and investment support
  • There needs to be more support for innovative green firms, particularly in the risky start-up phase
  • Green consumption needs to move from the margins to the mainstream
  • And all this can be done through a careful partnership between business and government.

Each process has reached these same broad conclusions. But it hasn’t stopped ministers asking the same questions again the following year, through a new taskforce, strategy or action plan. And again the year after.

There’s an obvious message coming out of this. Governments want to be seen to doing something about all this green stuff. But the policies are hard, and the politics uncertain, so they talk about it instead.

It’s good for them, because they can say they’re gathering evidence and consulting, as a prelude to action.

It’s good for stakeholders – from business or green groups – because they get a seat at the table, a chance to whisper into a Minister’s ear, and an obvious ‘success’ to report back to the Board or funders.

But it does very little toward the ultimate goal of a green economy. Despite ten excellent reports and processes, and a fair amount of consensus about what needs to happen, we are no closer to that goal today than we were in 1999.

Then again, all ten previous reviews were under a different administration. So I would like to give the Green Economy Council the benefit of the doubt for now. Any new government needs to do its own evidence gathering, analysis and consultation, and the Green Economy Council might just pull it off. I would love nothing more than to be proved wrong. Here’s hoping.

My partial list since 1999:

  • 1999: Department of Trade and Industry produces a sustainable development strategy, after a long period of consultation. It recommends reorientating the economy around ‘resource productivity’
  • 2001: The Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office undertakes a long study on study on resource productivity
  • 2002: the Johannesburg Summit brings stakeholders together from across the globe to agree on the need for sustainable consumption and production
  • 2003: Publication of ‘Changing Patterns’ – the UK Framework for sustainable consumption and production
  • 2006: The Sustainable Consumption Round Table reports its findings
  • 2005: the UK’s new Sustainable Development Strategy is launched, containing a chapter on sustainable consumption and production
  • 2005: An Advisory Group on evidence for Sustainable Consumption and Production is formed
  • 2006: Stern Review on the economics of climate change
  • 2005-8: the Business Taskforce on sustainable consumption and production sits
  • 2007: report of the Commission on Environmental Markets
  • 2011: Green Economy Council

About author

Rebecca Willis

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