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Politics in Crisis - a different economics

ALAN SIMPSON looks at the possible ways redistributive economics could be used to fight climate change, from vertical gardens to 'fur miles'

AT the end of 2016 there were 345,000 electric buses in operation worldwide. China had 343,500 of them. By September 2018, the USA had over 1 million plug-in cars. Europe had a similar number by June the same year. In Norway, where government loans for public-sector car purchases are only available for EVs, 49.1 per cent of 2018’s car purchases were EVs.

This is the way transport is moving; from dirty to clean, from unsustainable fuels to renewables.

Not all of it is electric. Sweden’s public transport system runs on bio-gas from biodegradable, municipal waste. Germany, Italy and Switzerland are running hydrogen-powered buses or trains. In Cheshire, Alstom are preparing to convert the first 100 of Britain’s diesel locomotives to hydrogen.

London now has its first double-decker hydrogen bus, with “demonstrator” fleets being introduced in Liverpool and Aberdeen. Bristol was the first to follow Sweden, with its bio-bus experiment.
Nottingham followed suit. It’s all part of the economics of clean; improving air quality at the same time as lowering our carbon footprint.

You can travel much further (and faster) down this path if whole city cycle routes, pedestrian priorities and more localised supply systems come in, but to get there Britain would need to tear up today’s national infrastructure programme and start again.

Copenhagen offers a good example of whole-system planning. Determined to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025, Copenhagen has already switched 85 per cent of its council vehicles to EVs.

Better still, 41 per cent of its travel to work or study is by bike; not bad for a city of 600,000 people. Copenhagen is now building a series of bike-only bridges and crossings to emphasise this shift in transport thinking.

But their “bundling” of ideas runs far wider than just transport.

The city’s State of Green programme is a city-wide, structural improvement plan to cut heat consumption by 20 per cent, electricity consumption by industry and commerce by 20 per cent, and domestic electricity consumption by 10 per cent. Almost 100 renewable energy projects compete (or collaborate) to deliver these targets (including free heat from the city’s sewage system).

Not far behind them comes Finland, with a countrywide declaration to be carbon neutral by 2035.

Any comparison with Britain is just painful. The Chancellor is currently trying to fiddle Britain’s carbon emissions targets; changing the rules so he can transfer a CO2 “surplus” (caused by the recession) from the last carbon budget into the next.

Who cares? He clearly has another planet to head off to, but the rest of us don’t.

A Kennedy “space programme” moment is needed if Britain is to get out of the mess the Tories leave behind. We need a seismic shift in both thinking and doing.

Cutting Britain’s carbon emissions in half within a decade requires mobilisation on a par with the Kennedy’s obsession. His commitment to land someone on the moon had a time budget, not a cash one. There were no prizes for coming second. It was “sod the cost. Just get there first.”

This is where we are now with the planet.

The good news is that US scientists have just worked out that the cheapest, most secure way of delivering future energy security is via a massive over-investment in renewables. They might argue about what to do with energy surpluses, but what a luxury of a problem.

Surpluses could go into whole-town vehicle charging networks. They could be converted to hydrogen for use in local heat networks. They could be shared (as a safety net) with others. The major obstacle to such transformative economics is the Chancellor…and ourselves.

Thatcherite economics set out to break collective consciousness on the anvil of obsessive individualism.

New Labour, and the emerging technology revolution, merely accelerated the process. The result is that we’ve become disconnected from our own destructiveness.

No-one welcomes the annual 28,000 excess deaths from air pollution. We just don’t see our own car as part of the problem. If car exhausts were directly fed back into the vehicle we might view it differently. But as things stand, carbon tax rises on fuel are more likely to provoke protests than celebration. Culturally and politically, we have to find ways of making the shift into clean transport both attractive and socially inclusive.

Replacing the nation’s 35 million cars would certainly be good news for British steel and the recycling industry, but how do you attract the poor? One way would be in “scrappage” schemes targeted at the poorest estates. These could offer three-year, free membership in community, state of the art, EV car pools.

Give them priority access to recharging in town centres and the trade in of Britain’s most polluting “old bangers” would race away. Within months, middle class estates would be demanding the same deal. British electric vehicle production would soar to Norwegian proportions.

So too with aviation. An industry expanding at 5 per cent a year, but delivering only 1.5 per cent “efficiency gains,” is only racing towards the climate cliff. But the issue always gets translated into “spoiling my holiday plans.”

Proposals for a “Frequent Flyers Levy” (affecting only the 15 per cent of flyers doing more than three trips a year) might help, but there are perverse consequences. Maybe the rich wouldn’t mind less crowded airports and emptier skies. Maybe corporate executives (on tax deductible travel accounts) would just pass the costs on to the taxpayer. What we have to deliver is more widespread behaviour change.

One suggestion is for “air miles” to be replaced by “fur miles” — with flight tickets detailing the animal(s) under threat as a result of different flight distances. This might have an impact on parents having to explain to their kids the “killing spree” they were about to go on. But would it deter the rich?

Perhaps a better idea would be for a “climate payback” scheme. The flying habits of the richest 15 per cent might be more profoundly changed if, for every 1,000 miles over their three trips allocation, they had to put in a week’s “ecological repair” work.

Corporate execs could begin with the 2.4 billion trees Britain needs to plant over the coming decade or the installation of Paris-style “vertical gardens” in all our towns and cities. What the cash-rich/time-poor tend to resent most is having to repair the damage their lifestyles inflict.

You could, of course, just give every airport an annual “carbon miles” budget and once they’d spent it the shop would shut.
Whichever way you cut it, cash budgets will soon play second fiddle to carbon budgets.

Spending limits will become more flexible. The non-negotiable “survival” constraint will be in cutting carbon emissions in half. Ecological budgets of this sort will become the cornerstone of tomorrow’s economics.

As Labour discovered in 1945 (and as Roosevelt’s New Deal showed in the 1930s), spent wisely, “debt” can be made to repay itself. Death, on the other hand, tends to more final.

It’s a message fully grasped by today’s Fridays for Future schools climate strikers. Every politician in the land needs to hear what the kids are demanding from the adults around them. It is the right of the next generation to live differently. Those not heeding the message should expect to die at the ballot box.

Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992-2010 and now advises the party on environmental issues.

 

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