As he prepares to hand over control of the UK’s top eco-campaigning group, TONY JUNIPER, DIRECTOR OF FRIENDS OF THE EARTH, reflects on the green movement, in conversation with NICK ROSEN
“I used to dismiss pop star involvement in Green campaigns as celebrities picking up on fashionable causes to get themselves some good PR. But I changed my mind when I found myself leaning on the bar of a nightclub with Thom Yorke from Radiohead, along with Tory leader David Cameron and Labour�s David Miliband. It was 2006 and Miliband was still Tony Blair�s Environment Secretary. Thom had written them each personal invites to a very select little gig organised by Friends of the Earth at the Coco Club in Camden Town. Thom was performing, along with Johnny Greenwood from Razorlight.
Thom was giving David Miliband a piece of his mind about needing government action to tackle global warming. Somehow, over that drink he managed to convince Miliband to bring in a law that would make it compulsory to reduce our carbon emissions, be it from domestic heating, public transport, or industrial processes. Now the Climate Change Bill is going through Parliament, and when it becomes law this summer it will be the biggest thing the green movement has achieved so far, setting legally binding reductions to carbon emissions, making Britain the first country to do so.”
Thom suffered some unpleasant and inaccurate allegations from the Sunday Times as a result of his high profile campaign. As he walked around his house with Tony Juniper later, working out how to install a ground source heat pump that would bring the heat from the earth into his living room, he revealed how hurt he was: �I�m being pilloried for trying my best to help a cause I believe in,� he told Juniper. Its outrageous really. So many celebs adopt good causes more for their own PR rather to solve the problems in the world, “but Thom is unique” says Juniper “truly committed and willing to properly understand the detail of climate change.”
Juniper had come a long way to be standing at that bar since he first arrived at Friend of the Earth�s office 18 years ago as a young campaigner. “I had been working at a much more staid organisation called the International Council for Bird Preservation,” and now he was part of the group of the cardigans and beards that filled the office in a grungy street off the City Road; “it all seemed so anarchic to me and wildly exciting,” he told me in his current office at FOE HQ. “My desk was a plank of wood on top of two filing cabinets…. but we had an annual budget of �4m.” Juniper in those days wanted to change the system, end capitalism, and switch to a pure green lifestyle.
“I was sent off to Ghana to meet a secret organisation called the national investigations committee which was uncovering evidence of corruption in Ghana between the government and British logging companies. I came back with documents that were turned into a World in Action documentary on ITV.”
Back then, being green was still a minority activity. Now, suddenly everyone is green, and every company and pop star is vying to be the greenest in the land. It�s got so that being green has almost lost its meaning. But that’s still a shift in the right direction. And one thing has not changed in the last two decades – Prince Charles has been an absolute rock of the green movement. He�s been derided for talking to plants and told to stay out of politics, but he has done a huge amount to force the biggest companies and the top politicians to sit up and take notice. “He�s a commanding figure and when he talks, they do have to listen,” Juniper says of the heir to the throne.
For some the answer may be to live off-grid, “and that is a valuable contribution to the problem, especially in saving energy,” says Juniper. “But I do not believe large scale water supply and food production can be left to community initiative. And the future of the majority of mankind is in massive cities, although each city could run its own power and water grids.” Human waste could be recycled in anaerobic digesters to harvest methane and turn it into heating. Waste water could be used in gardens. The new Eco-towns present an amazing opportunity to pioneer some of these ideas but “I fear all we will get is over-engineered buildings plonked in the middle of the countryside and a whole new reason to get into your car.” Eco-towns need to be filled with Eco-people, but on the whole we have not adopted simple, low-consumption lives that will be needed to deal with the coming fuel and food shortages.
By the time Juniper took over running Friends of the Earth in March 2003, the annual budget was �11m and the staff were usually neatly dressed. Leonardo di Caprio had just ordered his first Toyota Prius. Juniper has got nothing against Leonardo di Caprio, but he criticises “Toyota launching a new gas guzzler and calling it green because it runs on electricity part of the time and biodiesel the rest of the time strikes me as faintly absurd.”
“Meanwhile I had learnt to be more pragmatic. I no longer wanted to change society and politics � there isn�t time any more � the problems facing us are too urgent.” So instead of trying to change the system, Juniper led Friends of the Earth towards trying to change the way we live within the system. “I would never have said that 18 years ago.”
But even this reduced aim is huge task. It means doing things like jacking up fuel tax to get cars off the roads, withdrawing subsidies for giant companies like Shell and BP to do oil and gas exploration, and preparing for a future without natural gas, which is not far away.
“In 2006 I was sitting in the Cabinet office asking Tony Blair why he could not tackle some of these polluting activities we are all guilty of, like insisting on energy saving light bulbs or banning Patio heaters ….. There were three or four of us from the green movement, and Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Beckett were flanking Blair on one side, with the government�s chief scientific adviser on the other. His answer made my blood boil. �We can�t act on these things until there is a public demand he told me. And you people in the green movement have failed to create a public demand.� What about the Iraq war, I wondered, there was no public demand for that, just a few oil companies who needed to know where there supplies were coming from. So if you can go to war with Iraq in the absence of public demand why not go to war on climate change?
“Of course I was polite in front of the PM, and I do respect the way he managed to get climate change on the agenda at international meetings like G8.
Juniper’s next target is trying to reform emissions trading, the new system which awards pollution certificates to big companies and allows them to buy and sell the right to pollute.
The carbon trading system seems deliberately designed to let everything go an as before. The European Union has given huge carbon allowances to dirty industries. Its part of the fallacy that if we all just tighten our belts a little, then the problem will be solved. In fact it�s the opposite. Unless we go a lot further than that now, we will all have to make much greater sacrifices later. Emissions trading is just a tool to try and halt over consumption, reverse climate change, but it�s almost turned into the opposite, somehow preserving wasteful gas guzzling industries and rewarding them. Its part of a government-business stitch-up, and meanwhile the consumer is being asked to pick up the bill and make bigger sacrifices.
But politicians, especially Labour politicians are too scared to say that. It�s unpopular. “To be fair to the government, they have introduced the Climate Change Bill, but I think Gordon Brown is allowing it through under immense pressure from the Tories. He sees the environment as a less pressing issue than Blair. He has yet to call the Green groups in to see him and that says something about his priorities. On his trip to China last week he did not take an environmentalist with him, but he did take Richard Branson.”
“On the whole New Labour has been a disappointment. Their eco-rhetoric just is not matched by their actions. For all the talk of the things we can do as individuals, its government regulations that will make the real difference and this government has not made the tough decisions. One day Brown makes a powerful speech on climate change and literally the next he comes out in favour of the third runway at Heathrow Airport.
“It shows that he and the rest of the government haven�t even understood the challenge, which is to improve the environment here in the UK while at the same time making a profit out of it.
Big business and politicians have done a good job of conveying the impression that there is plenty of time to deal with the crisis and that technology will come up with the remedies. The green movement needs to learn from Tesco and BP which are masters of spin � “sometimes we haven�t made our case in a way that people thought was convincing,” he says. Now there is near panic in some quarters each time there is a flood, and Juniper hopes that we can convert that into action. But it has to be the right kind of action.
Companies like Virgin Fuels with their ridiculous biofuel that is �needed� to power vast Jumbo jets, Richard Branson is a consummate PR operator and he jumped on the global warming bandwagon with great aplomb and managed to convert some long standing concerns he had about fuel availability and oil refining into a concern about global warming and now he is using Biofuels in his trains and aircraft but he has done nothing sustained to reduce their carbon footprint or find longer terms solutions.;
“If Richard Branson was sincere about global warming we would have heard more about aviation pollution. Maybe if he came out against that I�d believe him.”
On a personal level Juniper’s biggest disappointment is with BP and their Beyond Petroleum campaign which he helped to create. “I remember standing up on the top floor of the BP Tower looking out over the City of London with then Chairman Sir John Browne.
He had just seen the light, and the light was green.
He turned to me and said �you�ve convinced me � we will bring in a new era at BP, a sustainable era.� I was so excited to be instrumental that kind of change to Britain�s biggest company, and an oil company to boot. But it didn’t last. He put huge effort into gearing up his executives , and the rebranding as Beyond Petroleum looked quite convincing, and the company publicly accepted the climate change scientists� claim that global warming is man made. But if you look at the slogan and then you look at the vast proportion of where BP�s R&D is going, its nearly all into oil and gas exploration and not into renewables like Solar power or wind power.”
Shell is just as bad. “They both call themselves green but they are going deeper into fossil fuels. In fact they have recently reduced their involvement with renewables. And that shows that the problem is not about companies failings � its about the financial system
A stock exchange company has to follow the money, and when oil is $100 a barrel that�s where the money is.”
Juniper feels just as skeptical about Tesco�s second hand plastic bags. Until the big supermarkets reduce the amount of energy used in their stores, minimise the distance that food travels and review their relationship with farmers, saving a few plastic bags is just window dressing.
“Companies responsible for the vast bulk of the economy are focusing on half-baked, advertising led, brand enhancement opportunities. And the worst thing is these activities are crowding out real regulatory action by government. Going green will always be presentational for stock exchange companies � the discipline of shareholder returns and profitability will have to alter before they can ever be truly ecological.
“Having said that, they are brilliant at communicating their message, and I know we have a lot to learn from them about the power of presentation and having simple clear goals which we communicate to our audience.
Having spent years trying to change them from the outside, Juniper thinks that when he leaves his job I might spend some time trying to change the transnationals from the inside. The private sector has more power than governments. They control the products in our shops.
“They are in a position to bring in new products build hope, communicate. That�s the important task right now. And it�s happening here and there. Marks & Spencer�s, for example, is making really sincere moves to reduce its carbon footprint. M&S did a couple of big things � they looked at all their products and asked how can we make them more sustainable, minimise the environmental impact of the ingredients in their food products. The other thing they did was to go as low carbon as possible.”
They were sending the right signals. There are so many other companies just indulging in greenwash, which the Oxford English Dictionary recently added, meaning: �disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.�
The challenge for the bgreen movement, Juniper believes, is to explain how we can green our lives and consumption habits and yet still have jobs, eat well and go on holiday. “And I feel that is partly our fault, in the green lobby. We failed to make it attractive enough for the government to adopt truly environmental policies. We need to do more to get the average family to accept the real changes that are needed” to use up less energy, waste less food, and generate less waste.
“Over the last few years I�ve learnt the futility of telling people things they don�t want to hear. The things we actually need to do are controversial but we haven�t built a demand for them � dearer food for instance.”
“With a decline in the economy looming, my fear is that these issues get buried by the pressures of a recession. Large scale agrifuels for example, growing fuel in fields that could be used for growing food, might seem tempting in a downturn. But the demand for cheaper fuel and cheaper food is not realistic in a world where the population is growing, and China and India are gobbling up more and more of the world�s resources.
“That�s the challenge for my successor, or rather successors because my job is being split in two, with a Managing Director running the organisation, and an Executive Director to carry out the campaigning role. We�re interviewing shortly, looking for the best and the brightest eco-visionaries out there to take us through the most important decade for the environment in the short history of this planet.”
COPYRIGHT OFF-GRID LTD. 2008