Ten things I've learned over 10 years in green policy

Matthew Farrow headed up CBI's energy and environment team in 2004. A decade on he is executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission. Here are ten key things he has learned over those 10 years.

1     At the extremes, the views of business people and green activists often have a striking, if inverted, symmetry.  Business people with little interest in the environment regard the economy as fragile and vulnerable to permanent damage from poor policy while believing the environment is robust and able to recover from harm.  Green activists see the environment as fragile and easily damaged but believe the economy is fundamentally strong and unaffected (or not negatively affected) by green policies.·       

2.    Environmental policies that are elegant and simple will be criticised for not taking account of real world anomalies and unfair impacts.  Policies that take account of these things will be criticised for complexity. 

3.       The scale of environmental opportunities and problems in China is almost impossible to comprehend.  A small example – the EIC’s equivalent body in China has 42,000 member firms (though membership is compulsory, not a bad idea…)

"Inventing a lot of ground breaking carbon policy during a period of unprecedented economic growth and then having it come into effect during the deepest recession for 100 years was never going to go smoothly"

4.       People often make assumptions about the views of stakeholders without checking.  When I was at CBI I was phoned by a journalist I knew who told me that they had been assured by senior figures in government that CBI would oppose any move from the then emissions target of a 60% cut by 2050 to an 80% cut.  In fact CBI was not opposed to this and on my watch came out in public support of the 80% target.

5.       Some EU green policies are essential to hopes of a stable and civilised future, but others are examples of mission creep into issues which are very important but best decided by national stakeholders.  Many people involved in environmental politics though tend to either welcome or oppose all EU environmental policy indiscriminately.

6.       Getting SMEs to focus on sustainability issues (or any other issue) is always going to be hard.  This is because success an SME owner/manager depends on getting two or three key things right, and these are usually things like market positioning or customer service rather than sustainability related.  Yes, there are plenty of small firms who could and should save money through energy efficiency or more recycling, but it will be rarely be a make or break issue early on and those are what SME managers focus on.

7.      Most business best practice case studies at sustainability-themed conferences come from the same small group of consumer-facing major brands.  I’ve got plenty of admiration for some of the initiatives over the years from M&S, Tesco, Unilever, Coca Cola, Boots and the rest but unless best practice is adopted by the bulk of firms who are not consumer facing or respected brands then we will never make real progress.  Supply chain pressure is sometimes part of the answer but straight regulation is often more effective.

8.      Inventing a lot of ground breaking carbon policy during a period of unprecedented economic growth and then having it come into effect during the deepest recession for 100 years was never going to go smoothly, so its no wonder that the CRC (Carbon Reduction Commitment), the Climate Change Act and the rest have had a bumpy ride.

9.      Devolved administrations often look to diverge from English policy regardless of need.  In general this has been positive for environmental policy, encouraging innovation and ambition but it can also lead to unnecessary complication.  

10.    And lastly, green policy seems to be one of the worst areas for three letter acronyms.  Many is the happy hour I’ve spent looking at the impact of ROCs and FITs in EMR on the ROR for CHP investment, or whether changes to rates of LFT will affect RDF and SRF export to EFW…

Matthew Farrow is executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission


This article first appeared on Business Green