Vince Cable's Speech to the Green Liberal Democrat Conference, Nottingham 19th May 2018 - from Summer 2018 Challenge Magazine
In GLD Challenge Summer 2018
Introduction by Wera Hobhouse, MP.
Wera first met Vince at Green conference in Rochdale in 2005 so she was clear Vince has the skill of explaining complicated things to us and that he has a long track record on Environmental issues.
Thanks Wera. Wera is a tremendous addition to our party.
We (as LibDems) have been through some difficult years but there is a new sense of optimism with the successes in the recent elections, even better than we foresaw. As well as getting councillors elected it is about running new councils where we need to do things when we get there and having green ideas and actions is a key part of that. I know in many parts of the party we have been through some awful years but when we are very much back off the floor and in recovery mode and that's the context in which I want to talk to you.
You've already had Wera and Ed and Lynn talking to you about policy in terms of what we've done in government, what we are now thinking of and what the priorities are. I don't want to bore you by just going over all that again so I'll adopt a slightly different approach, which I hope works, with talking about my own journey through Green issues which is, as you will discover, a little bit unorthodox but it has culminated in the last few weeks in my reaching an agreement with Caroline Lucas of the Green Party that we should be fighting jointly in my own borough. We did so, where we had a pact with them and they actually finished up getting more seats than we'd calculated because we were rather generous, but the principle of collaboration was established which I know is deeply controversial in some parts of the party (a lot of people hate it and I think some people in the Green Party hate it too) but I think it's grown up and I've embraced it for two reasons. One is the difficulties we have as the 3rd, or in their case the 4th party, struggling for hearing and the first past the post system it makes sense to work together but also because there is a lot of overlap in values and let's pool them is my view, so let's see what happens It may work or it may not in some parts of the country but I just want to explain how I got to this point.
Let's start at the beginning I was a child of the 2nd World War and it was at the at time that many of the ideas we now call green or environmental were born. Let me just highlight 2 of them One of my first memories was staggering around in the city of York, in what l thought was fog but it was yellow and completely impenetratable and it came to be called smog. It was an industrial city and like all industrial cities in Britain the particulates coming out of domestic coal burning were creating this weird and rather dangerous phenomenon which you can see in Beijing and Delhi today, and which was profoundly unhealthy and strange. All I just remember as a child was walking through this, but once it was established scientifically that there was a problem and what the problem was, government acted, we had something called the Clean Air Act and it was actually a Conservative government who brought it in. It was decisive, it said we stop, no more domestic coal burning, and there was a facilitation programme to help people adjust to it, and the air cleaned. There were results, it was environmental (the word green didn't exist then) but it was environmental action that worked.
Another thing I experienced early on was the consequence of the post war generation embracing Green land development (for housing use) the greenbelt was a product of post-war planning and it came out of an idea that cities were like humans they have lungs and you need it and I happened to grow up in the city of York where this idea was already fully established we had relatively enlightened capitalist employers, Quaker companies, which had established decades earlier that we needed large parks which were established on the outskirts of the city of a little place called New Earswick which was what we would now call a Green Village a habitable community joined up, high environmental standards a sense of sustainability. So these were products of that era and so I think there is a certain vanity when we talk about green citizens and green policies being the products of today actually they have quite deep roots.
Out of that era of course emerged 60s a belief in economic growth, rising living standards and I think that was when people started to become aware of some of the limits of this process, I think the first environmental book I ever encountered was some of you may remember somebody called Rachel Carson Silent Spring, the consequences of DDT which of course raised agricultural production but had side effects, we became aware of something called acid rain the Burning of coal didn't just cause smog but also cause trans-border pollution of sulphur to the forests of northern Europe people became aware of that.
We became conscious the spread of motor car ownership had side effects. (Cars) were predominantly a positive force and I grew up in a family where owning a car was a main objective in life and we did eventually get to that point. It was in many ways a liberating force and has been since but it had consequences and as it happens I think the first Big political environmental campaign I ever became involved in, in my 20s, was around the future of the motor car in cities. Some of you may recall that in my 20s I was in the Labour Party and I lived in Glasgow. I became a Glasgow city councillor and there was a proposal to transform the city of Glasgow alongside the elimination of slums which of course were the worst in Europe at that stage into a city for the motor car and they were consultants advising on making Glasgow rather as Birmingham has become today but some of us are worried about the consequences of it I represented a fairly poor Ward of Maryhill which was just south of the constituency that Jo Swinson has at the moment, the better off suburbs of North West Glasgow. The proposal was that they build a motorway on stilts through the middle of this working class community so that the prosperous suburbs of Milngavie and Bearsden could get into the city a few minutes earlier and we mobilised the community campaign together with political action in the city council and we stopped it. It's stopped to this day never happened. I've recently been back to my old haunts and Maryhill is still a relatively deprived community but it's still a community and those suburban prosperous people of Glasgow that represents in Parliament I have to go to the inconvenience of getting into Glasgow on a train with basic objective of shifting the split to public transport the way from the magic and it was a small victory and part of Glasgow is covered with motorways on stilts but I think it was one of the earliest battles that was fought to try to rebalance are in a more sane and environmentally healthy direction.
But much of my early life was spent around issues of development and I spent a lot of time in Africa and India and Latin America and that was in many ways where the big battles over green ideas developed and led in due course to the concept of sustainable development which I'll talk about in a minute. But in its earlier stages there were essentially two underlying views: one of them basically a pessimistic view that these countries would always be poor, the ideas of Malthus, these countries will always have rapid birth rates so will always have lots of children, and this will overwhelm any increase in food production so they will be doomed forever coupled with imperialist views of shortages of raw materials, and was laced with cautionary warnings about the resource use that we're not completely wrong so that there was this pessimistic view that was quite well embedded
Then on the other side there was a much more optimistic view about development really based on the precedent of Japan initially that what were once thought to be peasant underdeveloped countries could transform themselves through a combination of private enterprise and government through industrialisation, through exports. Indeed Japan was rapidly becoming a developed country and it was getting models emulated across Asia with Korea, with Taiwan, with Singapore and pockets of development everywhere else. That was the big debate in development: which of these two essentially was correct and in the 60s we saw the emergence of the Green Revolution, the multiplication of productivity, triple cropping, all kinds of changes that took place. one of my earlier memories actually was going to India the year before the Green Revolution took hold 1965 and not just the year of War but the last big famine in northern India and subsequently it never happened again. So you know the optimistic view of development was fuelled by these industrial and agricultural changes.
Now I think as time passed the views about growth and development gradually changed in both directions. There was evidence to support both the worries and the optimism. When we came to the early 1980s a combination of things happened. By then there were significant numbers of developing countries that were doing extremely well economically, and poverty was gradually being abated in many areas, but at the same time we had just had two oil shocks, the so called Club of Rome had just produced a very pessimistic report on resource use, there was a growing sense of anxiety about the way some of the commons as we call them were being eroded in the destruction of tropical forests and species loss. In 1985 there was an absolutely crucial development that was hardly noticed at the time which was that there was a group of scientists who met at a Swiss resort call Bellagio, which was the first time that we got the emergence of an awareness of something called climate change arising from CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. It was the combination of those things that produced a request from the United Nations to set up something called the Brundtland Commission. Brundtland was the Norwegian prime minister and set up a group of wise people from around the world. I was Economic Advisor to one of them, called Shridath Ramphal, who was Head of the Commonwealth at that time and we started our work.
It soon became apparent that there was quite a bitter division about how we should look at the world. On the one hand there were people who might now be called 'Deep Greens' who were horrified by all the side effects of economic growth and who determined that it should be stopped, worried about population growth. On the other hand there were people, primarily from the developing countries, including my boss, who were vehemently opposed to this way of looking at the world who thought we have got to have lots of growth because this is the only way to overcome poverty, because poverty is the main source of pollution on the planet. If you look at deforestation, or the erosion of watersheds in Africa, or wherever it is, poverty is the source of the problem and you can only deal with that through vigorous economic growth. So you can see there were two polar opposite views of the world and as it happened the 'Greens' were actually thrown out because most of them came from the developed world and their views were considered to be unacceptable. In the event what the Commission came up with, and I helped write all this with a man called Nitin Desai from India, was the concept of 'Sustainable Development' which was in essence an attempt, I suppose you could say a compromise or a synthesis, of these two apparently opposite views of the world. Basically Sustainable Development was saying yes, we do need growth, we do need development, but it's got to be in a form that doesn't destroy the the global assets for the next generation. You may say that's a fairly pious hope but that that was what we committed ourselves to trying to achieve. In other words, rapid expansion to overcome poverty but framed in a way that through technology, market pricing and through cooperative action, dates big environmental consequences. That was what Sustainable Development was all about.
Now if we all look back on that three decades later, what do we have. I think people will interpret this in different ways but I would say that actually there are a lot of negatives but in many ways there is a positive story and I think first of all developments including large amounts economic growth has had one enormous beneficial outcome that hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, have been lifted out of extreme poverty across Asia, certainly famine has largely disappeared, many of those countries are now middle income countries above all China and its not just standard material consumption but literacy, life expectancy, matters related to the role of women, all of these things in many different metrics show massive signs of progress. I would say looking over my lifetime that probably the great positive achievement has been the transformation for many countries of the world, that for millennia had only known extreme poverty, their transformation into much more comfortable and agreeable stds of life overwhelmingly China but increasingly India particularly in the South have these characteristics. . So that was one big achievement.
The second consequence of the era of Sustainable Development if we can call it that, is that many of the anxieties about resources have, I wouldn't say disappeared, but substantially diminished in many countries, China most notably, you got to a position with much more efficient use of energy with the energy to GDP ratio (which is the way economists measure this) in China has fallen to about a quarter of what I think it was during the Maoist era, when energy was used massively inefficiently as the shift to light industry and to more consumer based production all of this had enormous consequences. So that many of the anxieties that would be produced by the club of Rome have to some extent receded.
I think the third big consequence (is that) we went through an era when there was really genuine cooperation to try and deal with big environmental issues, these have now been largely forgotten but one of the big achievements of that period was the negotiation of the Ozone Layer, which was seen as a major threat at one point with the Montreal protocol and Mrs Thatcher, of blessed memory, was actually one of the Architects of that. We've forgotten that she gave some extraordinary, what now would look like very enlightening, speeches about stewardship of the planet, we don't remember her in that way, but actually she did make a major contribution to that. There were the first stages of agreements on Climate Change. We know where that's going to now, but the first step towards setting up the IPCC and the treaties underpinning it were established at that period. There were moves which were partially successful to deal with depleting fish stocks, of course there are still some horror stories out there but in many ways there was a great deal of progress, indeed in our own little corner of the world we can now eat cod fish and chips which disappeared until quite recently.
So A whole lot of co-operative arrangements grew up in this period of multilateral cooperation. I think what it led to including in our own country was what I would call institutional environmentalism and green-ery, environmentalism in a way became part of the establishment, uncontroversial. Part of this was having labour Ministers Ed Miliband bringing in the climate change act, Tony Blair rushing off to the Arctic to embrace what was polar bears or something that's generally wanting to be associated with this new green thing and that was I would say 10 years ago that was roughly the point that we've got to. That was the context in which we got into government. Ed Davey I think has probably already talked to you about some of the things that we did achieve in government but because there was to some extent a following wind we were able to achieve a great deal. The things that I personally got involved with was one establishing the Green Investment Bank, actually I give credit to Chris Huhne as he did a lot of the groundwork for that, but we actually got it launched. Massive progress in developing offshore wind, partly invested by the green investment bank, the development of an industrial strategy which had green Industries very much as part of that, the development of offshore wind fabrication, the Siemens development in Hull, the development of the beginnings of development of the electric car through the Leaf and so on.
So we were able to achieve quite a lot, this brings us up to where we are now. Two things have happened which are bringing all of this into doubt. First is the politics of populism, we can explore as to why this actually happened but I would say it's a consequence of the long-term reaction to the banking crisis and its aftermath and the destruction and the loss of wealth and falling living standards that it led to and the rage that it has produced which is in turn led to a very short term way of thinking for which environmentalism doesn't really fit. Of course the other consequence, which we are now experiencing at the hands of President Trump, is the collapse of a belief in international cooperation, with potentially enormous damaging consequences. We have seen attempts to sabotage the climate change agreement but of course that's just part of a fragile fabric that is now being systematically torn apart and there are all kind of things which we don't currently talk about but you know will be put at risk. A problem I got involved with some years ago was the problems of managing Antarctica which was in many ways a great success story for international cooperation, but once country start fighting each other over territory and territorial rights then you get into an altogether different ball game and science and cooperation go out of the window. So we have got the politics of rage and populism, short-term thinking and we've got the disintegration of an international order. That's the very ugly world that we are now getting into and I would argue that we we have a role to play in this because we do actually believe in international cooperation as part of our DNA. We are an environmental party, we are European and of course one of the things which is now at risk are all those environmental standards around clean air around clean rivers, beaches and so on which were institutionalised through the European Union. So there's a lot to fight for and it does seem there are some big issues just coming over the horizon where we have a major role to play. I'm sure you've been talking about this all day so I don't need to go into the detail.
In June there will be a vote on airport expansion. In my part of London this is largely seen in parochial terms as a noise issue, not that that's trivial, but of course in much bigger terms it is a threat to air quality, there's no way that that's Heathrow can be expanded without breaking European Nox emission levels and of course there are potential major CO2 emission consequences if you just allow unfettered airport expansion. This is a battle that that is going to have to be fought and at the moment the conservative government and the labour opposition, or much of it, are aligned behind large scale expansion of airports, Heathrow. So that's one big battle. I think a second is the Fracking issue. We had arguments about this as you will know in the coalition government but as a party we have now committed ourselves to strong opposition to fracking and not just because of local disturbances, that may or might be a major factor, but because it opens the way to substantial hydrocarbon exploration at a time when we're trying to shift the energy balance away from hydrocarbons and indeed Britain has been pretty successful around offshore wind and other Renewables.
Thirdly we have the potential at least for mobilising people around the next generation of Renewables. Those of you who looked for example at the Welsh Lagoon project will know that on a small scale it isn't really viable but if it were rolled out on a large scale it is almost certainly viable economically as well as environmentally. We've already got to a point where offshore wind which used to come in at about £150 a megawatt hour, is now down to about 50 which is roughly comparable to gas. Tidal Lagoon power is probably at the moment over 100 but that could be brought down and this is something that brings together a combination of strong environment, reviving the economy of South Wales with all the supply chain that is associated with it. So I think we've got a whole series of battles to be fought in that area. Railway development - there has been a massive expansion of railways, you can say either because of or in spite of privatisation, the big question now is how we use this for a combination of environmentally sensible policies and northern regeneration such as the Trans Pennine route which is in danger of going by the board because of a lack of political will. I think when you add all that together you've got a very strong environmental programme. There are particular concrete things there on which to campaign, not just talking abstractions but we're talking real things that affect real people in real places. I would hope that if we can put that together we can give real environmental leadership. That's all I want to say. I'm sorry if I took too long but I did want to give people an opportunity to ask me questions. Thank you.
Questions and Answers:
Rail, bus and tram system policies - Tram can be problematic in introduction, Buses are important part of system - Vince HTC CIC bus company -social/drivers ex-prisoners etc.
Greenness compared to Greens & Deals with Greens - pragmatic - Brighton & Twickenham.
Economics of projects and environment including Nuclear -Environmental Externalities-Pigu
Waste & Plastics capture/recycling plus reducing Production - Stop single use plastics.
Development after Club of Rome has led to loss of third of nature and 3rd world overtaken to become 1st on emissions - Chinese are moving quickly into PV &wind renewables, closing coal, same in India but still a major issue.
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