Can Sustainability Survive The Deficit? - by Peter Judge
This week, I’ve been wondering what effect the deficit crisis will have on the move to sustainability - and the technology we need to get us there.
Long term, we know we’re going low carbon. The oil will run out, and we need “transition technologies”, that save energy or generate it renewably. But short term, we’ve all got a deficit. The money ran out, or we borrowed too much, or whatever.
So, just when industry and government needs to invest in transition technologies to move to the “new economy”, it seems like there isn’t any money to invest.
These are political issues which are too big for politics to handle. An election during these times focuses on anything else. In the British elections earlier this year, we treated it as entertainment. Amusing gaffes on microphone mattered more than policy.
I’m not qualified to say anything about the US elections, but our media show us people whose seem to believe stupidity is a virtue. Even though the president is the most popular serving politician in the US, the US has a messy election to come. .
But what happens next? After the deficity elections, how is industry changed? In the UK, we just had the big “spending review” - a parcel of more than £80 billion of cuts, which will put half a million public sector staff out of work (US readers, remember the UK is about one tenth the size of your country, and £80 billion is about $125 billion), and cut every part of government spending by around 20 percent.
That’s a lot less public money to support transition technologies,
So, the day after the review, I went to a sustainability reception in Parliament, expecting to see a crushed and demoralised community, licking its wounds. Instead, business consortium the Aldersgate Group had packed the Peers Dining Room with people talking excitedly, networking with each other, and looking for opportunities.
The scheme - which covers all large businesses, not just utilities - was planned to be “revenue neutral”, recycling the money companies paid for carbon credits, as incentives to those companies who reduced their energy use by the greatest amount.
Overnight, when the scale of the cuts became clear, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) decided not to recycle the scheme’s revenue. As the scheme ramps up, but 2014, it could be making a billion pounds a year.
That’s a big shock for large companies. One consultant told me a client had budgeted to put about £10 million in the CRC scheme, but get most of it back. Now, that money will go.
Critics say it’s a stealth tax, and people in DECC are happy to call it a “green tax”. Either way, it’s a nod towards what some people are calling socialism. And the CRC scheme, was always bizarre and complex - even its supporters said that. A straight tax is simpler.
If DECC hadn’t made the change, it says it would have much less money to support schemes like carbon capture and off-shore wind energy, which can’t get off the ground without public funding.
That money may also help give industry the Green Investment Bank it wants. This bank - announced by the previous Labour government - is supposed to help the private sector fund transition technologies. Its future under the Conservative-led coalition has seemed precarious, but it was re-affirmed in the spending review.
The government is still vague about how much like a “bank” it will be. The sustainability industry wants it to be able to raise more money from the money markets, creating something which can really help green projects.
That could make a big difference to people who have ideas, either for ways to cut IT’s energy use, or ways to use IT to cut energy use.
But - the green industry in the Peers Dining Room all told me - it requires government to get involved and take risks alongside industry.