Shortly after taking office in May, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said that he wanted his new administration to “be the greenest government ever.” He’s not off to a good start.
On Thursday, Cameron’s Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced that the government will stop funding the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), its independent environmental watchdog and advisory body. The cut was part of Cameron’s promised “economic pain” in the form of cuts to public spending. But eliminating the SDC to save money makes no sense, because the SDC itself actually saves money. The day it learned it was to be eliminated, for example, the SDC, with a budget of $4.6 million, published a report laying out how it had saved the British government $90-110 million a year as a result of introducing green efficiency measures.
I’ve written before about how European austerity programs are threatening green initiatives. But usually it is subsidies for fledging renewables that are under threat—not departments that already pay for themselves in the form of efficiency savings. Reacting to the news in a prepared statement, SDC chairman Will Day said he was “deeply disappointed.” “Our work has delivered efficiency savings totalling many times what the organisation has cost the government, and contributed towards much greater sustainability in government – both in the way it runs itself, and the decisions it makes about our wellbeing and our future,” he said.
Environment Secretary Spelman said that the SDC’s environmentally conscious ethos would become part of the “mainstream” government culture and so an advisory body was not needed. On its website, Friends of the Earth seemed to be prepared to accept this line of reasoning; instead of criticizing the decision, it said only that “The [government] must…explain how it will continue to green Britain, saving money and creating jobs at the same time, without the Sustainable Development Commission’s expert guidance and overview.”
But not all environmentalists were as patient. Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas, the head of the Green party, called the move an “absolute disaster”. And writing on his Guardian blog, George Monbiot pointed out that the SDC’s $4.6 million was a “rounding error” in some of Britain’s big-ticket public expenditures, such as maintaining an ageing and (some argue) redundant nuclear weapons system. He accused the government of ridding itself of a “turbulent priest”—which is to say, an organization willing to criticize government profligacy and poor environmental policies. “The commission is a strange beast: while it makes reams of constructive suggestions, it has also been one of the government’s harshest critics. This is a dangerous place to be for an organisation wholly dependent on government funding,” Monbiot writes. “Scrapping the commission is stupid, irrational and counter-productive.”
Hard not to agree with that sentiment.