Austerity and the environment

Finbarr Bermingham reports on Green Party MP Caroline Lucas's Hansard Society lecture in Parliament

Two years ago, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg stood in Portcullis House and delivered the Hansard Society's annual lecture. Last night, Caroline Lucas, the leader of the British Green Party stood in his place. It's apt to compare the two: since forming government with the Conservatives, Clegg has been shedding voters like a moulting cat loses fur. The Greens, on the other hand, have seen their share of the electorate steadily rise. Jenny Jones came third in the recent London mayoral elections. With the Lib Dems no longer providing an alternative to the "big two" of British politics, is the stage set for the Greens to replace them as Britain's third party?

Certainly, that's the ambition and Lucas took her invitation to outline just what that alternative might look like. The main message of the night was thus: the environment should not be sacrificed in the name of austerity. Rather, the environment should be viewed as a means of hauling the country from recession. The Green Party have written The Green New Deal, which Lucas describes as an "update" on Roosevelt's post-Depression era stimulus that jolted the United States back to prosperity.

They are determined to expose the "myth" that green projects cost jobs and to prove that on the contrary, they create them. The crux of the manifesto is that eco-friendly projects are labour intensive. The example Lucas cited is Kirklees Warmzone, an insulation scheme that kicked off in West Yorkshire in 2007 in which over 50,000 homes received free insulation. The scheme directly created 106 jobs, with 200-150 created indirectly. On average, it has led to savings of 23,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and £3.9 million in fuel expenditure per year. Schemes like these, she said, should be rolled out across the country. Just as Roosevelt put the unemployed to work on the roads after the Great Depression, today's governments need to look for a contemporary equivalent.

One track mind

Lucas accused the coalition of pursuing the public service cuts with tunnel vision. She again compared the situation with 1930s and post World War Two Britain. Both were eras in which few had much. The arts, however, was seen as something that should be shared by all - as was the environment. Indeed, in spite of such adversity, institutions such as the NHS and the National Trust were born.

The governments of the time realised the value of public health and natural assets and so set about protecting both. Lucas called for an independent commission on the environment to be created, in order to protect it from knee-jerk policy making. Environmental policies, acknowledged Lucas, aren't always vote winners, and with politicians up for election every few years, they're unlikely to upset the status quo. Placing decisions in the hands of an independent body would lead to more sensible, less populist environmental strategies.

Britain also, said Lucas, needs to redirect the focus of its infrastructure investment. Where the rest of Europe is extending its rail network, the UK is too hung up on air travel, proposing further runways and air hubs across the south east.

In the same week that the Australian government introduced its controversial carbon tax (reluctant prime minster Julia Gillard had her hand forced after requiring the Australian Green Party to join her in a coalition to claim power), Lucas said that the EU should introduce personal carbon credits. Each citizen would have a limited amount of air-miles which they could use annually. Once they're exhausted, they can buy them from other people, but there would be a finite amount of total air-miles Europeans could fly.

To many, Green policies sound good, but are difficult to reconcile with reality. Indeed, Lucas touched on the issue when she said that in a "blind taste test", the majority of voters choose Green policies above any other party's. Lucas pointed at the recent government u-turn over privatising Britain's forests as evidence that eco-protests can work. What's required to have them implemented across the board, she suggested, is a strong, popular leader. She spoke of her hope when Tony Blair came to power in 1997: by far the most popular prime minister in generations. He could, said Lucas, have introduced whatever policies he wanted, but instead of pursuing a "green" agenda, he went to war in Iraq.

One thing is for certain, though. The longer the political and economic malaise continues, the more appealing policies like Lucas's are going to sound to the disgruntled masses.

Image by Campaign Against Arms Trade on Flickr