11 March 1998

Rt Hon John Gummer MP Former Secretary of State for the Environment

talking to The Millennium Debate

Many say Kyoto was not up to the task of curing global warming.

You have to start somewhere in order to grow. If you take the comparison with the decisions at Montreal, ten years ago, for the ozone layer protection, they were not up to it either. But over the years we have improved it. What I was concerned about, above all, were the credible tasks. Yes, that is important. And then to have a basis upon which we could build and that I think we have got.

So was Kyoto more of a gesture?

No not a gesture. Something much more practical than that. We need to have an institutional structure within which global decisions can be made and the global future can be protected, and if you do not get started you cannot do anything. So it is much more than a gesture. It is the beginning of a process. A serious and solid start to that process.

What is the potential in the next century, as some people suggest – like Jeremy Leggett from Solar Century – that solar and other renewable technologies will be the boom industries in the next century equivalent of the computer chip in this?

I think it may well be so, but I do not think you can bank on it. That is not the most sensible way to proceed. I like Jeremy Leggett’s work, he is doing a great deal of good, but there is a certain amount of competition between these different sustainable technologies – and I prefer that word to ‘renewables’, Sustainable technologies will all make a contribution of one sort or another. We need to progress the fuel cell – the hydrogen based economy – the other area where perhaps we shall find the future lies; but we do not know that now. What we have to do now is to use what we can to get the energy we need, and do it in as clean a way as we can while we develop these others.

Should there be substantial government subsidies going into developing these sustainable resources?

I am not sure that is the right way through. I am not opposed to subsidy. But it seems to me that you get these breakthroughs largely by insuring that they are commercially viable, and that mere subsidy puts you in significant difficulties. So you need to be careful that what you are really doing with the subsidy is properly organising the market so as to take into account costs which otherwise the market would not take into account. So it is perfectly reasonable to insist that those who produce by fossil fuels should contribute something towards the development of new fuels, simply because they do not pay for the impact upon the environment which the fossil fuels have.

In the form of a green tax?

We have the "NOFFO" attitude in this country, the "non-fossil fuel obligation" – which makes the fossil fuel producers contribute something towards the development of non-fossil fuels. That is right.

Are we in some sense borrowing from future generations, in the way in which we are using fossil fuels?

I have always defined ‘sustainable development’ as ‘growing in a way which does not cheat on our children’, and as a definition therefore, unsustainable development is growing in a way that does cheat on our children; and we do in fact borrow from our children. That is of course an unnatural thing to do. Children borrow from their parents – only they never it give back. Borrowing, as far as children are concerned, is not like borrowing from your bank manager. He expects the money back. We know perfectly well our children borrow but that they do not expect, nor do we expect, they are actually going to pay us back. But to borrow from them on the same terms is a wholly unacceptable and unnatural way of behaviour.

What about the subsidies that were needed to bring about "the energy revolution" of this century: the nuclear industry? Could that have happened without substantial government investment?

No, there was considerable government investment. It is a very good example of socialist planning, in the sense that we spent the money and did not quite know what it was spent on. So when the privatisation took place, one of the most exciting things in Britain was that privatisation revealed the real costs of nuclear energy. I am a supporter of nuclear power, as a matter of fact, but I do believe that it has to be done in a proper way. If you are going to do it in a proper way, you must know what the costs are, and it’s a very good example of why centralised planning – and socialist planning – really does not serve the green cause well enough. You need the independence which only public ownership – and that is rather curiously called "private ownership" – can provide. Actually, private ownership is what we mean by proper public ownership. Therefore, by independent people, there is a demand to make the figures add up, and if we had had that with nuclear power there would have been a very different picture.

Is it actually criminal to leave all the coal in the ground as some suggest?

Well, that is a load of old rubbish. It does not make sense. It’s like saying if you do not have enough cows to eat all the grass you are somehow being criminal. I do not believe it at all. The truth is that we have been enormously blessed by being given so much to work on. We ought, all the time, to be extremely grateful of what we have been given, when we have not created it. We have received it, and gratitude is best displayed by a certain reverence. Reverence demands that you do not use what you do not need. And that is a proper basis. I don’t know what coal will be used for in the future, but it’s quite possible to believe that somebody will find some real use for coal which is even more important, and which, if we have depleted the stocks unnecessarily, we will have made it more difficult for them. All you can do is to use your resources without wasting them. That is your job.

Is there a significant role to be played by Britain in developing these new technologies?

Yes, I think we have been doing it. If you look at the work being done in all sorts of fields, Britain has been leading the way not just in terms of technology, but in the technology of business. Privatisation, which has lead the world, has in fact meant that in Britain, with regulation, our electricity and gas producers are much more able to act in a green way than they ever were before. The reduction in the need for generating capacity has meant the closure of some very dirty generators. The fact that we now are moving so effectively in fuel cells to the kind of co-generation which could make a huge difference. All that is very much fueled by British companies and British attitudes.

Will market forces be the major player to bring an end to global warming?

Market forces are the only forces strong enough to do that. Mere exhortation, regulation or taxation do not often achieve those ends. You need a market system which draws out of the economy the kinds of resources which make it possible to deliver what we need. I do not object to the basic statement that the market is the only force strong enough to do it. A market needs to be not regulated but corrected. Markets, unfortunately, do not always take all the costs into account and sometimes governments have to insist that they do internalise those costs, and thereby get a proper signal from the purchaser. Markets do not always operate in long enough terms, so sometimes the governments, through regulation or through taxation, have got to help them to do so. Markets, or market manipulators, always long for monopoly. That is true of every businessman. So governments have to make sure he does not get his way.

None of the big companies really want to get too far ahead of its competitors. As long as the main players stay ahead of the field, more or less, nobody is really prepared to stick their neck out over this.

Well, that is very sensible is it not. T S Elliot commented that if you were one step ahead of the rest of the world you were counted a genius; two steps and you ought to watch out for the men in the white coats. And I think there is a truth about that. The point is, there is only a degree in which you should stay ahead of the field if you are in that sort of responsible position, because otherwise you are liable to make horrifically wrong decisions. Some of the worst environmental decisions that have been made, have been made by people who have been heralded at the time as gurus. So you have to be very careful about that. And what I see is that business – good environmental business – should be one step ahead, and organisations like Greenpeace should be two or three steps ahead. They will not always be right, but they will be drawing and pulling people towards them, constantly challenging, and that is the right balance.

How many steps ahead should the Government be?

I think it ought be about one and a half steps ahead. That is roughly speaking where government should be.

Should the Government for example make a commitment to putting one penny on income tax in order to invest in alternative or sustainable technologies?

No that is quite the wrong route. Utterly wrong and very old fashioned. We have got to be very careful. Environmentalists must not become the new puritans who measure success on the basis of cost. That’s the California syrup of figs attitude, that the medicine cannot be good for you unless it tastes filthy. I take a catholic view about this, and that is that the environment is in fact something which can provide us with great resources, enormous advantages, if we act environmentally and that is what we ought to be doing.

Buckminster Fuller suggested that basically all that we need is there now, it is just we are being rather ignorant about the way in which we're approaching it.

Well, there is a great deal that is there now, and one of the things we have to do is to recognise some of the enormous commercial opportunities which enable the market to force these things out. It cannot do it on its own and it cannot do it unreformed. It does need to have a whole lot of other influences on it. I am not a sort of single-issue man on this, but at the heart of this is the realisation that this huge opportunity is a commercial opportunity. If you turn it into a commercial opportunity then it really does have an immediate effect, and it is an effect which is seen to be beneficial, and not seen to be a miserable and kind of puritan attitude which so often discredits rather important causes.

Your own role in the near future as a politician?

Well, politicians need to lead, as I say. A single step and a half ahead; just ahead of the best of businesses; just there, trying to challenge but not so far ahead as to be incredible, because they are representing their constituents. Their interests, therefore, have to be taken into account. And I try all the time to be challenging, by saying: why aren't you doing this? What about this? Isn't this a good idea? Why not think of it this way? What about the other? Politicians are ideally placed to try to challenge at every point, and if they have an approach, both being enthusiastic about the environment, and also hard-headed and realistic about the economic effects, you can change quite a lot.

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