Call for new approach to measure progress towards net zero

The Environmental Audit Committee has written to both the Chancellor and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to ask for estimates of greenhouse gas emissions to be published alongside GDP figures to indicate whether economic growth and slashing emissions can be achieved together.

This follows the committee’s inquiries in February and March into “Aligning the UK’s economic goals with environmental sustainability” and, in particular, how the reliance on GDP as a sole measure of prosperity can hide the climate and ecological impacts of economic growth.

The letters highlight in general the isolation of climate and ecological data reporting from fiscal reporting and how a true picture of how the country is progressing in all aspects of the economy, the environment and net zero targets is impossible unless integrated reporting is provided. 

Much is made of the failure to implement the recommendations of the “Dasgupta” review into our economy’s reliance and impact on the natural world.  This was a review commissioned by the Chancellor and had these headline messages

The two letters are similar in content but the one to the Chancellor provides the main thrust of the committee’s recommendations.

Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry on Aligning the UK’s economic goals with environmental sustainability: Part 2 – 2 March 2022

Following Part 1 of the enquiry this part questioned witnesses on how environmental sustainability could be incorporated better into the economic measurements that guide Government policy.

The full inquiry of over an hour can be viewed on parliamentlive.tv however we have separated out the following clips covering the discussions around the use of GDP and how it does, or doesn’t, represent a valid measure of prosperity and how other measures should now be regarded as more fit for purpose in the 21st century. The witnesses in this session were as follows:

  • Professor Kate Raworth (KR) – Co-founder and Conceptual Lead, and author of Doughnut Economics at Doughnut Economics Action Lab.
  • Professor Henrietta Moore (HM) – Founder and Director at Institute for Global Prosperity, and Chair in Culture, Philosophy and Design at University College London (UCL).
  • Matthew Lesh (ML) – Head of Public Policy at Institute of Economic Affairs.

Clip 1 (15 mins) How useful is GDP as the primary methodology and can it cope with the increasing demands of how we view prosperity in our economies?

ML: who, as a traditional economist, accepts that GDP as a measure is flawed but believes it’s still the least worst option as a measure of prosperity. He extols the virtues of GDP and also mentions the UK’s track record in decoupling economic growth from its carbon emissions (see clip 2).

KR: who isn’t a traditional economist, puts the case for a dashboard of measures, in addition to GDP, and also introduces an element of Modern Money Theory surrounding the ability of governments, like the UK, to pay for essentials without worrying about tax revenues.

HM: GDP is not a good proxy for prosperity, it’s a 20th century metric not fit for the 21st century as it tells us nothing about distribution (of income), sustainability, inequality and environmental degradation. She talks about speaking to people in regions over what’s important to them for their prosperity.

Clip 2 (17 mins) Are policy makers trying to have their cake & eat it, when they argue that it’s possible to tackle the climate & nature crisis whilst continuing with economic growth?

KR: Yes they are. She dismisses stories of “Green Growth” and points out that there’s little evidence that we can decouple carbon emissions and our material footprint from economic growth at anything like the speed or scale needed. She goes on to dispute ML’s earlier opinion on the UK’s record on  decoupling and how our structural dependency on GDP growth will hamper our ability to deal with the climate & nature crisis.

ML: continues his support for economic growth as a solution to environmental and social problems, (as predicted by the Kuznets Curve*) but that we need to price carbon, and find ways to price other damage to the natural world, in order to bring them into the economic (GDP) equation.

HM: we need to recouple social and economic prosperity and embed it into environmental prosperity and that market solutions alone can not achieve this. We also need to reshape and create new markets dependent on regions. 

KR: As a follow on to HM, the Doughnut Economics model is being used in cities, regions and local governments around the world, in the way that HM describes.

Clip 3 (5 mins) A question to KR – how could policy makers reduce the dependencies on growth built into our economic systems?

*The environmental Kuznets curve suggests that economic development initially leads to a deterioration in the environment (and an increase in inequality) but, after a certain level of economic growth, a society begins to improve its relationship with the environment and reduce levels of environmental degradation (and inequality).

Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry on Aligning the UK’s economic goals with environmental sustainability: Part 1 – 9 Feb 2022

A fascinating in depth inquiry into how government policy could move away from GDP as the prime measure of national prosperity to encompass other, more meaningful, measures for social and environmental wellbeing and to consider issues such as a post-growth world, non-monetary capital and inequality.

The remit of the Environmental Audit Committee is to consider the extent to which the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and to audit their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets.

The full inquiry (76 minutes) can be viewed on parliamentlive.tv however we have broken it up into the following clips, each concerned with themed questions to the following two witnesses.

  • Dr Matthew Agarwala (MA), Project Leader, The Wealth Economy, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge. 
  • Prof Tim Jackson (TJ), Professor of Sustainable Development and Director, Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), University of Surrey.

Clip 1(6 Mins) Question to MA, “whether you think that the current measurements of economic success take into account, sufficiently, the role that’s required in order to achieve a decarbonised economy?”

MA explains why GDP was fit for the 20th century but is not for the 21st, it’s a backward looking “flow” measure whereas what we need are forward looking “capital” measures.  Using the analogy of assessing a bakery’s pantry of ingredients today in order to determine the quality and quantity of tomorrow’s pies. So, looking at the wealth available, net of any inherent harm, assessing natural assets & ecosystems, healthy & well educated human assets, physical and social infrastructures with strong communities and degrees of trust between people, business and government.

Clip 2(3 mins) Question to TJ about whether growing GDP is compatible with the challenge of the government’s sustainability plans. 

TJ discusses the history and difficulties of the UK decoupling its GDP growth from its emissions and says how its historic responsibilities for emissions should also be factored in. Also brief reference to how carbon taxes can incentivise decarbonisation. 

Clip 3(8 mins) Question and discussions over the benefits and pitfalls of GDP and the other measures we should be considering to judge our prosperity.

MA talks more on the history of GDP and expands on the pantry/portfolio approach raised in clip 1 and the excellent statistics, data and accounting available in the UK to measure the various elements.

TJ points out the importance of not just looking at the portfolio of financial, natural and social capital but also at its distribution across society, something GDP ignores, and how an unequal society puts social cohesion at risk. He goes on to explain how GDP takes no account of housework or the true value of care work, most often undertaken by women.

Clip 4 (14 mins) Question and discussions on alternative measures to GDP.

TJ explains dashboards of non-monetary indicators, such as climate, health, inequality etc, and how they are already available around the world and how they can be aggregated into single measures.

He describes more subjective measures like wellbeing and how measures can be assigned prices to come up with a single monetary measure, as happens with GDP, and how, being subjective, some measures and how they are used will involve policy decisions.

MA discusses the challenges of defining and measuring social capital, especially as it can’t be assigned a £ value. How it involves measuring trust in, for example, the ability of communities to come together, after say a flood or during the pandemic. It is measured through regular surveys of how people feel in their neighbourhood and about their neighbours, taking into account cultural differences and using scales of 1-10 over trust in people and institutions.

Clip 5 (17 minutes) Question over the comparison of monetary values  determined by “the market” and those assigned to non-market measures and whether these will always be swayed by political rather than economic decisions, thus bringing in issues over trust.

TJ pushes back by saying that we already have a political element in market prices in that political rules and policies will determine how markets work and discusses existing national satellite accounting by the ONS, for non-market statistics, and how this doesn’t currently make it to policy.

By going back to the origins of GDP, MA explains how its construction and measurement has always involved politics.

TJ discusses carbon targets and the need to put a value on carbon in the economy to encourage or discourage behaviours, but how this must factor in inequality, eg lower income families spending a larger proportion of their income on carbon intensive purchases. He also comments on the importance of some kind of hypothecation in carbon taxes, ie in knowing where the tax comes from and where it is then applied.

MA discusses the UK’s ability to influence international environmental and natural capital accounting including the move away from GDP and how the UN’s system for national accounting for GDP is currently under review to recognise human & natural capital.

Clip 6 (12 mins) Question 1 to MA over whether the Treasury is making full use of existing alternative accounting statistics and if not, why not.

MA points out that the recent leveling up approach takes into account various capital approaches but misses out natural capital, a “missed opportunity”. He then goes on to discuss the potential for the UK Treasury to take advantage of its national Green Bonds by underpinning them with the good science and statistics we already have.

Question 2 “As tax revenues are tied to income & spending would it be economically disastrous for government to deprioritise GDP growth?” (Government relies on GDP growth as it believes it needs  an ever increasing tax take to help it pay off ever increasing government spending).

TJ starts by explaining the importance of GDP as an accounting measure, and how he is not calling for it to be removed, but expands on his previous comments on where it falls down in recognising the distribution of wealth and the changes in the assets, and environmental impacts, that go to create it.

He says that, in order to move away from GDP as the sole measure, we first have to unravel infrastructures and institutions that are growth dependent and which therefore drive the need for GDP growth, eg privatised social care, and imagine what a post-growth welfare state would look like, pointing out that, with production growth already having fallen, we are, in effect, already there.

Question 3 then explores how the government might square the promotion of green and net-zero policies, eg switching to electric vehicles, with the resulting drop in tax and duty.

Clip 7(6 mins) Question about the Treasury’s response to the DasGupta report on The Economics of Biodiversity, in particular, that relying on GDP growth as a measure of our success ignores the reliance we have on nature and its resources.

TJ points out that whilst the report rightly calls for “inclusive” accounting, again it misses social inclusion in terms of the distribution of wealth and environmental/social harms.  

MA discusses the lack of government response to the report and how this could be achieved within this parliament, warning that if we keep relying on GDP, the increasing gap between what GDP is telling us about the world and what people are experiencing will diminish public trust in statistics.

“The difference between using wealth versus GDP as a measure of the economy is the difference between getting a backwards, after the fact, diagnosis at an autopsy from a coroner versus getting one ahead of time from the doctor in their surgery that you can then treat”  

Other resources: 

DasGupta review – report to UK Treasury February 2021 – “The Economics of Biodiversity”

APPG on Limits to Growth – briefing paper “Wellbeing matters-Tackling growth dependency”

Beach labyrinth reflections

Around 100 people walked the labyrinth created on Teignmouth Beach last weekend for the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice. Plenty more watched the walkers from the promenade. 

The construction effort, directed by labyrinth artist Andrew Nicholson, was tough work as the chosen location, below the lighthouse, was particularly stony. Still, the stones added to the attraction of the finished artwork as they were used to mark the labyrinth pathways.

Passing families with children joined in enthusiastically to place the stones. “That building effort with the parents and children was my favourite part of the experience,” said John Watson of Action on Climate in Teignbridge, which organised the event. “All in all, it was quite a spiritual event which I think connected with people in a most original way.”

Labyrinths have a long history. People have been creating and walking them since the times of the ancient Greeks. In medieval times, Christian monks would walk them to reflect on the journey of their lives.

The idea of the Teignmouth Beach labyrinth was “to reflect on our concerns for the environment and be thankful for the special places in our lives”, said Andrew Nicholson (pictured above). 

Those walking the labyrinth were invited to pick up a piece of rubbish found on the beach at the entrance, reflect on their concerns as they trod the meandering path to the centre, then leave the rubbish and their concerns there. They could then take a stone from the centre and walk back thinking of places precious to them.

Scott Williams, an ACT member, said: “It was amazing and moving to see the flow of people travelling through such an ancient symbol. The solemnity and peace it created within those that walked it will stay with me.”

Of course, the sea claimed the labyrinth as the tide came in later in the day. Watching the water engulf the construction, a vicar from Dawlish remarked how appropriate the image was; a symbol of the threat of climate change to many people around the world.

“There were lots of people watching as the tide came in,” said Audrey Compton of ACT. “People of all ages. People who wanted to talk. It was obvious to me that we have suddenly reached a tipping point of understanding about the environment and desire for change. COP26 may not achieve nearly enough politically, but it has galvanised ‘people power’!”

For more on beach labyrinths visit the facebook page.

Wildlife Warden Podcast Episode 7

In this podcast Emily Marbaix updates us on what wildlife wardens have been up to, reminds us of autumn jobs to do in the garden, especially those that help wildlife, and takes a look at the eco-friendliness (or not) of our pets, including what we feed them and the flea and worm treatments we give them.

Wildlife Warden September Newsletter

This month’s newsletter covers a talk on Cirl Buntings by Cath Jeffs, a conservation officer with the RSPB; information about upcoming webinars; the Great Big Green Week events held in Dawlish and Newton Abbot; plus a summary of the projects Wildlife Wardens have taken on around the district.

Wildlife Warden Podcast Episode 5

Emily Marbaix is back with another podcast (which you can also read) in which she talks about her latest wild camping trip, orienteering training with Emma Cunis (aka Dartmoor’s Daughter), and notes that 68 wildlife wardens across 34 parishes and wards have received introductory training. There is also:

  • An update on the Wildlife Warden Scheme
  • An interview with Paul Martin of Ogwell-based Ogwild on the group’s experiences so far
  • Wildlife watching and outdoor ideas for the summer holidays
  • Information about Sustainable Bishops’s wildflower art competition, which will be on show on the 11th September
  • Information about Defra’s new campaign, Plant for our Planet
  • Information about the Teignbridge Local Plan Consultation

Wildlife Warden July Newsletter

As usual, it was been a busy month! We are currently writing ACT’s response to the Local Plan consultation, so this newsletter is a little shorter than usual.

Thank you to those of you who have responded to the Local Plan Consultation. This could be our last chance to influence where development happens in Teignbridge! 

If you haven’t yet commented on any sites, you have until midday on Monday 9th August. Here is some guidance on how to comment on ecological impacts.

Rewilding

Two groups of Wildlife Wardens visited Ambios’ rewilding project at Lower Sharpham Farm. We saw how they are using small numbers of Belted Galloway cattle and Mangalista pigs (an old Hungarian breed) to mimic natural grazing and disturbance. As we walked around the site we were lucky to see some of the wildlife that is benefiting from rewilding, including a group of swifts flying over the Dart and some interesting peacock butterfly caterpillars.

In collaboration with the Woodland Trust and Rewilding Britain, Ambios is hosting the Devon rewilding network, which you can join here. It is a place for people to share news and upcoming events about rewilding in Devon.

Read the full newsletter