Judging by your early writing, you used to be a real green radical. Have your beliefs mellowed over the years?
Not really. I wrote Seeing Green in 1984, before the collapse of Communism, so my political criticism in those days was even-handed – "a plague on both your houses", communism and capitalism. If anything, I am now even more critical of contemporary capitalism, based as it is on short-term, planet trashing, people-crushing, profit maximisation in every corner of the world. But I have come to accept (as explained in my latest book, Capitalism As If The World Matters) that we have got no immediate solution other than to promote a radically different kind of capitalism – genuinely sustainable and equitable. I believe such a thing is, just about, possible if those who care about capitalism (and are its principal beneficiaries) realise the terrifying consequences of the entire system collapsing in the not too distant future, in the teeth of social implosion and ecological meltdown.
If we don't change our ways, what will happen to the planet?
It depends how you interpret the threat of "irreversible climate change". If the planet just kept on getting hotter and hotter, then not only would we become extinct, but so would the vast majority of life forms. Would life on Earth eventually be restored? The evidence from previous "extinction spasms" indicates it probably would, over hundreds of millions of years, with as great if not greater a level of species diversity.
In that case, it's not so much the planet we should be worrying about, in the long run, as ourselves. Indeed, there has always been a particular school of green thinking which argues that the best thing we could do for the planet would be to accelerate our own demise – as in "cutting out the cancer of human kind". I don't subscribe to that view.
Many people still aren't convinced about climate change. The evidence is mixed, so don't you need to be more honest about man made changes to the environment?
The evidence on climate change is not "mixed". The overwhelming weight of evidence now points to a rapid acceleration in human-induced changes in the climate, with rapidly worsening consequences for humankind. And every government in the world (including China, India, Saudi Arabia and the benighted Bush Administration in the United States) signed up to that consensus when they accepted the 2007 Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The real dishonesty lies in those vested interests which exploit any residual scientific uncertainty for their own political and commercial purposes.
How can we tackle the idiots who regard denying man-made global warning as a badge of right-wing ideological purity?
The brigade of "idiots" gets smaller every year, and although they still have a disproportionate effect on the media and public opinion (sewing confusion, reinforcing inertia and so on), they are less and less relevant. Much more problematic are today's politicians who theoretically buy into the scientific consensus about climate change, but whose responses remain pathetically inadequate.
Will a British government ever really have the guts to take serious measures on climate change?
Despite all the fine words, emissions of CO2 in the UK have risen over the past few years, though Defra has just announced a tiny reduction of 0.1 per cent for 2006. It's all very slow, with faltering progress on both energy efficiency and renewable energy – the two most important pillars of any low-carbon economy – and absolutely zero progress on addressing emissions from road and air travel. Frankly, the political will just isn't there, and as economic conditions worsen, there seems to be little prospect that this is likely to change any time soon.
Has the Sustainable Development Commission had any effect on the Government, or are you just there to make it look greener?
The Sustainable Development Commission is an independent advisory body. We advise; Ministers either accept or ignore our advice. That's the way the system works – quite properly. On the credit side, this government takes sustainable development more seriously than most OECD governments, has developed an excellent Sustainable Development Strategy, with serious efforts being made by a number of different departments. It has set some ambitious targets both for itself and for key sectors (such as zero carbon housing by 2016), and the Climate Change Bill currently going through Parliament is widely recognised as a major step forward.
On the debit side, delivery against those targets remains poor, and the Treasury has proved itself an implacable barrier to any serious, cross-government progress being made. Since 1997, there have been frighteningly few ministers who have taken the trouble to think through the challenge of "sustainable wealth creation" in any serious way.
Has the Sustainable Development Commission served as a green fig leaf obscuring these inadequacies? I don't think so. And I don't think that's how ministers or officials see it either.
How do you feel about the Government's apparent full endorsement of nuclear power?
The Sustainable Development Commission came up with the figure that nuclear power would only reduce emissions by 4 per cent after 2025. So why hasn't Brown listened?
(answer to both questions) Simply stated, it is the view of the Sustainable Development Commission that this Government has got it completely wrong on nuclear power. Despite the fact that it's going to cost UK taxpayers at least £75bn to clean up the legacy of our current nuclear programme, that we still have no solution to the problems of nuclear waste, that nuclear power remains very expensive, that the risks of proliferation and threats to national security remain high, and that the contribution from a new nuclear programme (if it ever materialises) to total energy needs and CO2 abatement will remain relatively low, ministers are now putting more effort into encouraging nuclear power than they have devoted to the entire field of renewables over the last 10 years.
As they see it, this is the only manageable mega-fix available to them, the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. But this is a sad and extraordinarily ill-judged illusion.
How can we stop the Brazilians chopping down their rainforest? Should we just pay them not to?
For Brazil, (and other rainforest countries), their forests and the land beneath them are valuable economic assets. But they also have huge value for the rest of world in terms of climate regulation, sequestering of CO2 and so on. So the rich world needs to develop financing mechanisms to make it at least as beneficial economically for Brazil to maintain its forests intact as to cut them down – in effect, compensating them for "profits foregone". And the billions involved would still represent good value for money for the whole of humankind – given that deforestation currently accounts for around 18 per cent of total CO2 emissions.
Does buying trees on carbon trading websites to counteract our flights really make a difference? Or is that all nonsense?
Offsetting emissions from any form of transport is not nonsense – if it's done in the right way. And that means avoiding journeys where possible, choosing the most CO2 – efficient form of transport where possible, and when you have to fly or drive, offsetting the CO2 emitted with the kind of offset providers (such as Climate Care) who are able to guarantee gold standard offset projects. As it happens, Forum for the Future does not support forestry-based offsets – we prefer to invest in renewable energy projects in developing countries – particularly those that achieve positive social outcomes as well as climate change outcomes.
One of the partners of Forum for the Future, an organisation you founded, is BAA. How on earth can you work with a firm that wants to build more air port terminals?
Forum for the Future works with BP, involved in what The Independent called "The Biggest Environmental Crime in History". Why?
(answer to both questions) Working with companies such as BAA and BP is really difficult for an organisation like Forum for the Future – and recent decisions (to support a new runway at Heathrow by BAA and invest in the tar sands in Canada by BP) have made it even harder. But we set ourselves some very strict tests here. We have to be able to demonstrate that our advice and challenge to these companies is still making a difference, enabling them – in the round – to reduce negative social and environmental impacts and reinforce the benign impacts of which they are capable. It's messy, morally compromised. But so are we all at the individual level – or at least, those of us who fly or ever travel in a car.
It's all doom and gloom from eco-warriors. Is there any good news about the environment?
One of the reasons we set up Forum for the Future 12 years ago was to amplify all the good news that is going on out there – about people, communities, technologies, companies and so on. That's what our magazine, Green Futures, is full of six times a year. Without all that, I would have long since collapsed into a pit of despair given all the bad news that crosses my desk.Reuse content