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Caroline Lucas: GDP is a really rubbish measurement on just about every count

The UK's only Green MP on cutting through greenwash, holding governments to account, and championing wellbeing over economic growth.

As Greta Thunberg said, the first thing we need to do is tell the truth about the climate emergency. Unless we do that, we’re not going to have a common understanding of the challenges we face and what needs to be done. The [UK] government constantly claims that emissions have fallen by around 40% since 1990. But if you include aviation and shipping into those figures, as well as consumption emissions, not just production emissions, the reduction is more like 10%. They will talk about the fact that green growth means that we can completely decouple production from emissions. Yet, there is no example anywhere on earth where decoupling has happened at the speed, scale and comprehensiveness that would allow us to carry on with business as usual (but powered slightly differently).

The first problem is a real unwillingness to look at the crisis with the clearness and clarity that is so needed. As long as governments think they can continue with business as usual, maybe have a few more electric power points, then we’re not going to have the kind of response needed. And that’s why it’s so important for Extinction Rebellion, for the student climate strikers and so forth, to use the language of climate emergency because language can help shift perceptions.

The most significant ten years in human history

We had that moment when Parliament declared a climate emergency under pressure from Extinction Rebellion and the climate protests. And yet of course, we’ve not seen action proportional to it. I don’t think there’s a real recognition of what “emergency” means. I think there’s still a feeling that we’ve got forever to get this right.

Whereas to me, the next ten years are just so critical, the most important ten years in human history. If we respond to Covid by going back to normal and locking in yet more high carbon development, and if we go ahead, for example, with the £23 billion road building scheme, then our chances of getting off the collision course that we’re on with the climate emergency are pretty much nil.

I think the Covid experience is going to be an exciting comparator. Because there, we did have Cobra meetings, albeit ones that the Prime Minister [Boris Johnson] didn’t turn up to, and there, science mattered. Governments showed they could act at speed and scale when there was a common, shared understanding of the nature of that emergency. That’s what we still need to have when it comes to climate.

GDP is a rubbish measurement on just about every count

We know that for as long as we have an economy that’s success is measured in GDP alone, it will be harder to reach the objectives that we need from a climate perspective. And that’s why I think the work on identifying better measurements of well-being other than GDP is so important. Because the objectives that you set for the economy set the direction for your priorities going forward. There’s some really interesting work with a coalition of countries – the wellbeing coalition – looking at things like a well-being budget, as New Zealand introduced at the last budgeting process.

If we were to have a basket of other indicators that were more around access to nature, the quality of clean air, hopes for future generations and so forth, then we might get the set of policies that would lead to that. It feels to me that to start to wrench this government’s mind set into the direction it needs to go; we need to think about what the purpose of the economy is and what objectives we will set for it. And that needs to be front and centre of our discussions going forward.

GDP only tells us about the amount of money circling in the economy, not whether it’s used for good or bad things. If we still keep that as such, then it’s not surprising that the following policies lead us in the wrong direction. GDP is a rubbish measurement on just about every count. As indeed Simon Kuznets – the founder of GDP – admitted.

The good news is that a number of governments recognise the limitations of this fixation on only economic growth. And more and more scientists are writing to governments in the UN process, saying that this paradigm of ever-increasing economic growth is destroying nature and undermining the livelihoods of millions of people.

The Oxford University report from Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz points out that even if you don’t care about the environment, if you look at it with your best return on investment, a green recovery is far more labour-intensive, far faster and far more effective. Why would you not do it?

Climate should be running through every single debate we ever have

Among the many problems of the Covid crisis was that it completely interrupted the growing manifestation on the streets of people’s desire for urgent action. I think what was so interesting about some of those Extinction Rebellion demonstrations wasn’t just the so-called usual suspects; there were families, and there were older people who’d never taken to the streets in their lives before. And of course, Covid has put paid to that activism that was so visible and made sure that papers had that in their headlines every single day.

I think the media has a responsibility to hold the government accountable and not be so incapable of dealing with more than one emergency simultaneously. Of course, the papers are full of Covid, and that’s understandable, but it should not be at the expense of the climate crisis. Because that is orders of magnitude greater.

You can almost see the papers in 10, 15 years looking back to this moment and saying: “why weren’t they reporting more that the Arctic was on fire?” That the UK was way off its climate targets, that the [UK] government building back after Covid was giving huge bailouts to the aviation and fossil fuel industry? It’s just utter madness.

For example, if you compare the UK’s green recovery funding to France or Germany, it’s pitiful and astonishing that the government isn’t acting more. They know they should because they’re adopting some of the green rhetoric. Boris Johnson is pretending that he is some new Roosevelt. And yet when you look at how much of GDP [the government] is going to put into a green recovery, the total amounts to just 0.2% of the UK’s 2019 GDP (£2.2trn). By comparison, Roosevelt’s [1933-39 economic stimulus plan for the Great Depression] represented 40% of the US’s 1929 [pre-depression] GDP.

Climate should be running through every single debate we ever have because climate is not just an environmental issue to be relegated to a separate box but the greatest security threat we face to everything else we want to achieve. Unless that’s front and centre to every debate that we’re having, and every election campaign, then we are massively letting down our own kids, and certainly their kids. I think future generations will look back in utter despair at the recklessness with which we’ve acted.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 5th August 2019


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