Truth or Adair

November 28, 2008

There is nothing else

There is nothing else

There aren’t many better examples of the hypocrisy of Gordon Brown, and New Labour, than the selection of Lord Adair Turner to head the government’s “independent Climate Change Committee.” Turner, who put in a four year stint as head of the Confederation of British Industry, then became chairman of Merrill Lynch Europe, before dabbling in politics. Nowhere in his professional life has he demonstrated an interest in the environment, unless starting his career at BP counts, but then that would surely qualify as an interest in despoiling the environment.

Neither does his service at Merrill Lynch seem much of a qualification. When the investment bank announced massive losses in 2008, owing to extremely risky mortgage investments, it also emerged that it had been trying to conceal its losses in the years running up to that disclosure. The means chosen to perform this extremely dubious sleight of hand, was by siphoning $30 billion in losses to Merrill’s UK subsidiary.Thanks to our tax-haven-esque fiscal structures, as the Banking Times reported in August 2008, “such losses can be carried forward until a business has posted profits that equal losses” and “analysts have concluded that the group may not be liable for UK Corporation Tax for decades.”

Turner was probably party to practices like this during his tenure at Merrill Europe – as well as peddling dodgy sub-prime mortgage packages onto European investors. This is no problem for Gordon Brown, of course, who thoroughly approves of the City of London’s outlaw status. That’s why he appoints men like Turner to “independent committees,” rather than actual climate change experts.

It’s all been done in the confident expectation that Turner will produce a report that is congenial to the interests of the UK government. That would entail defending the expansion of coal power without demanding carbon capture technology. It would necessitate the approval of expanding Heathrow airport with at least another runway, and it would need to neglect renewable alternatives. A sub-prime solution, to put it in the language of the times.

And that is precisely what we have got. As the Guardian reports today, Turner and friends have decided that “the UK could meet its ambitious pledge to slash greenhouse gas pollution even if ministers give the go-ahead to expanding Heathrow airport.” From his hideout on Fantasy Island, the noble Lord told Juliette Jowitt that “it would be possible for aviation to be expanded while still meeting the target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the middle of this century, especially if airlines were able to use biofuels or other low-carbon power sources.”

Biofuels are being used as a justification for expanding UK airports. This is grotesquely out of tune with what experts have been reporting in the past few years about such fuels, not to mention the millions of people who saw this year how large an impact industrial biofuel production can have on food prices worldwide as the contents of their dinner plates shrunk meal by meal.

It is also a dastardly sleight of hand, and is similar to the argument for expandinf coal. In the case of coal, we are told that new plants can be built, as carbon capture technology will be applied at a later date to mitigate emissions caused in the interim. Expanding airports now can somehow be compensated when biofuels become standard in commercial aviation. There are a lot of “ifs” involved in this kind of policy making.

Neither clean coal or bio-fuelled passenger planes are on the horizon. Biofuels are in fact seeing a temporary rollback as oil prices dip – with the abandonment of a high-profile processing plant in the Scottish port of Grangemouth the most recent example of how corporations are losing faith in the miracle fuel.

Turner’s committee is a bad joke, whose sole purpose is political. There is no climate related expertise involved. As the Guardian notes, “[Turner’s] comments could pave the way for an announcement before Christmas that Heathrow’s owner, BAA, can build a third runway and new terminal to cater for hundreds more flights every day.”

There has been a spirited campaign against the third runway, headed by the group HACAN, with roots in the communities around Heathrow. Greenpeace and the Campaign Against Climate Change have organised actions to oppose it, as has direct action group Plane Stupid. Politicians in the zone around Heathrow won’t touch the expansion plans with a bargepole, so poisonous is the issue, and the Conservatives (Boris Johnson in particular) have taken it up as a populist cause.

But Turner’s words suggest that Labour will use the economic crisis to ram through airport expansion. This is especially galling, as in the same interview Turner urged that “major organisations must not use the recession as an excuse to duck ambitious plans to build a low-carbon economy.”

Turner also rounded on critics to the left of New Labour. The noble Lord “warned that supporters of a so-called “green new deal” should not exaggerate the number of jobs that would be created, but insisted that the changes should not hurt investment or employment.” That is, after he had said that a recession “posed some threats, such as the loss of investment capital.” So where is the capital to come from, if not public investment as advocates of a Green New Deal suggest?

Reforming Britain’s atrocious tax laws, which are used by multinational criminal cartels like Merrill Lynch to salt away ill gotten gains is obviously not on the agenda.

Men like Turner are staunchly defending extreme free market policies just as the market is voting to dig its heels in and resist any seamless transition to a “green economy.” As the Guardian article continues:

“Following lobbying by the car industry across Europe, the government yesterday watered down a recommended new car emissions target for 2012, saying it would phase in a target by 2020, though it added that it was also pushing for a lower limit.

“Shell and BP have been among companies that have pulled out of wind and solar energy projects in the UK, citing better returns in the US, and European plans for ambitious targets for renewable energy and emission cuts have been threatened by lobbying from businesses.”

Then there is the biofuels plant that won’t happen which, although the prospect of biofuels is appalling, just shows how business interests are going to cut and run if the environment doesn’t suit them.

What we need to do, as Adair Turner’s role and report will illustrate very clearly, is to set a very specific environment for companies to operate in, one where sustainability is rewarded and where dirty industries like coal or inhumane ones like biofuels are penalised. This entails a broadened role for public, democratic authority in setting regulations, earmarking subsidies and collecting taxation from the wealthy few to pay for investments to benefit the many.

With New Labour or the Conservatives in power, we are shockingly far away from that position, and our efforts to fight climate change will be hopelessly strait-jacketed.


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