Talk is cheap

The forthcoming National Policy Statements will not be assessed for carbon and the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) is not required to consider climate change in its decisions.  So how will we meet carbon reduction targets if major infrastructure is built without adequate consideration of the consequences for carbon?  Local planning authorities will need to produce impact assessments for applications being handled by the IPC.  How will this be funded and what support will planners have in preparing such assessments?  The Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum on Friday raised more questions than it answered.

The topic was The implementation and impact of the Planning Act 2008 and the speakers and audience focussed on the NPSs, the IPC and climate change.  To be fair, Sir Michael Pitt (Chair of the IPC) and Richard McCarthy (Director General, Housing and Planning, DCLG) had responses to the above questions, some of which were more convincing than others.  But they weren’t nearly as convincing as Hugh Ellis’s characteristically blunt thrashing of the regime.

Hugh is the Planning Advisor for Friends of the Earth and an impressive speaker and impetus for action on climate change.  He didn’t mince words when he said that the regime doesn’t allow for sufficient public consultation and it doesn’t adequately deal with climate change.  He points out that there are too many loopholes that could be taken advantage of, resulting in major infrastructure that could hinder our progression toward a low carbon economy.  As if this wasn’t shocking enough, he also pointed out the findings of the recently published Tyndall Centre report which states that the UK only has 4 years to cut carbon emissions if we want to ‘play our part in tackling climate change’.

All of this feels a little overwhelming.  I want to think that our major infrastructure projects – i.e. how our power will be generated – will account for carbon reduction requirements.  This doesn’t seem to be the case.  Richard McCarthy did emphasise that climate change is a major driver of the forthcoming NPSs.  But there are obvious concerns about the legitimacy of this statement.

Setting all of that ‘big picture’ stuff aside for a moment and turning to the local opportunities and challenges, I’m reminded that planners are supposed to ‘capture local enthusiasm and give local communities real opportunities to influence, and take, action on climate change’ (para. 7, PPS1 supplement).  You could read this in a few different ways, but I think this is about planners putting the pieces in place so that all of us normal people can change the way we commute and use energy.  Behaviour change is commonly talked about as essential for us to avoid going above the predicted 2°C temperature change.

To what extent can we rely on these changes to happen before it’s too late?  I’d say, given that we only have 4 years to cut carbon emissions, we can’t rely on people to change significantly or to do so fast enough.  My reluctant cynicism is fuelled by comparing this massive challenge with other challenges set to government (and planners).  And this gloomy look is further reinforced by the authors of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Lubner, who insist that people won’t change for a global problem like climate change.  A Guardian article from 12th October summarises their point succinctly: “…the whole history of economics demonstrates that such completely unself-interested behaviour is impossible to implement on a large scale, especially when so many people suspect that their sacrifice would not, in fact, make a significant difference to the outcome.”

Even though I’m seduced by this pragmatic view on things, I’d argue that this is short-sighted because people don’t only act on self-interest.  It’s typical for economists to talk of incentives, but history shows us time and time again that people do have other behavioural drivers – including altruism.

Whether or not we want to accept the cynical view that people won’t act on climate change without incentives, we should do what we can to make the environmental friendly choice the cheaper choice.  As PPS1 says, we need to give people opportunities to act on climate change.  Clearer messages from central government that climate change is a top priority would help those working at the local level to prioritise climate change in decision making.  The lack of adequate assessment for carbon in the forthcoming NPSs, and the fact that the IPC doesn’t need to consider climate change, are certainly not the clear messages required.

There’s no easy way to wrap up a post like this.  I can only refer to positive examples like the Tyndall report that says that we can meet our targets with the right kind of action.  Hopefully the forthcoming PPS, combining the PPS1 supplement on climate change and PPS22 on renewable energy, will provide local authorities with stronger guidance to make change happen.  And maybe in the run up to Copenhagen all of this will get a bigger profile and central government will stop just talking the talk and actually start walking the walk.

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