How Does the Public Sector Need to Change and Develop in Order to Effectively Meet the Climate Crisis?

Ben Szreter writes a three-part series about climate change. Part two considers the public sector and the challenges it faces in addressing the climate emergency. 

Principally we need to invest in the green economy, institutionalise the long-term, and reform our measurements of economic and social success.

We are stuck in an economic culture of immediate returns and gratification alongside a political culture of election cycles, throwaway slogans, and an ideologically retrenched state.

Strong government action is needed to break path-dependent inertia - the ingrained habits and rewards from all of our previous investments in a fossil fuel economy. In order to do this, long-term financial commitments on uncertain technological developments to stimulate the green economy are needed, action which is not suited to initial market-based investment. However, once there is a commitment to green technology this will crowd-in private investment via the market-creation it signals.

With time, new technologies and engineering solutions should deliver energy at a lower cost than the fossil fuel-driven economy. For the present, however, state investment must include long-term patient capital directed at both research and development and early-stage green technology companies in order to drive the switch away from fossil fuel dependency.

Part of this shift must be to include citizens, including the young who are showing enormous climate awareness, in a more active, participatory democracy. This may be through citizens’ assemblies or other experimental forms. We must do this to ensure that our decisions and governments are truly accountable beyond the single electoral cycle. We should also try to find structures for participatory democracy on a global scale to coordinate and celebrate action on climate change beyond the borders of countries.

We need this democracy to be both fast and slow – fast to react to issues that need quick responses but also slow in having long time horizons where appropriate.

We must also change the economic and political consensus on how economic success is measured if we are to produce an effective response to climate change. This means moving away from solely measuring our success through aggregate output measures such as GDP and towards measuring what we are really trying to produce – sustainable wellbeing for all of society.

As Pilling argues in his book The Growth Delusion, nature is not fixed, it can be degraded, so we must measure this as a resource on a balance sheet. If we don't measure our stock of resources (including environmental resources) as well as the annual flow as we consume them (as GDP does), then we are misrepresenting choices about present vs. future.

The challenge for the public sector is clear: institutionalise the long-term, invest in the future, and measure what we truly want to achieve and the resources we have to do that.

Ben is a policy professional and former parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP. He was part of a team that was joint winners of the IPPR Economics Prize in 2019.

He tweets at @BSzreter


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