An Interview with Tony Juniper

Leonie Bramwell 30 October 2018

Churchill College recently hosted Tony Juniper CBE as part of the ‘Shed a Light’ series, in a talk entitled ‘What does Nature Do for Britain (Economy, Food Security, Public Health) and how can it do more of it?’. The talk took inspiration from his 2015 book on the subject, but also branched out into Tony’s personal experience as Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF-UK, as well as the ten years he spent working as an independent sustainability and environment advisor. He called for a broadening of perspectives in environmental problem-solving: an appreciation of the interconnected ways in which nature in Britain affects economy and society, as well as a recognition that sustainability provisions may often aid, rather than hinder, the creation of profit for British business. TCS had the pleasure of speaking with Tony about the way policy affects the environment.

Your recent article for The Huffington Post outlined a reading of Brexit as something that could enable Britain to ‘raise [environmental] standards’. The tenor of current debate around Brexit is quite doom and gloom, though – do you believe that this more optimistic outcome is a genuine possibility under our current government?

Well, the key word here is ‘could’, and that comes down to how the politics of this play out. There are two broad views of Brexit in play at the moment, depending on which minister you listen to. Either Britain is going to become a global green leader, or Britain is going to adopt low standards in order to be more attractive as a free trade zone. The path, I think, is dependent on what the voters will tolerate. This is why it’s very important at the moment to be campaigning and to be mobilising public opinion – to be calling for the ‘green’ version of Brexit.

Isn’t it true, though, that an incredibly powerful rhetorical strand during the Brexit debate was essentially anti-regulation, or anti-“red tape”?

Yes, but that strand was only strong within a minority of the Conservative party. The more mainstream concern of the British public was in regard to who was imposing regulation; I think that the ‘taking back control’ line was what provoked the response, rather than complaints about ‘all this red tape’. Nobody, in the end, voted for polluted air, for rivers with sewage in them, or for less wildlife. That is what we will get, however, should we abandon the EU’s regulatory baselines without putting anything into effect to replace them. I think the question will really become about what Britain wants: do we want a free trade zone, or do we want higher standards and a green future for the UK?

Can you just briefly outline how we, as the public, go about campaigning towards that end?

We have to make it very clear to our politicians that a ‘green’ version of Brexit is what the British public wants. People need to join in with campaigns and become politically active now, in order to make the most of the present opportunity – because further down the line, this argument will hold less weight. Right now, however, there are some really big choices on the table. Will we have a strong Environment Act? Will we change our farming policy? Will our future trading relationships be built on sustainability? Politicians love nothing more than a vacuum of public opinion; it enables them to get away with things. So we need the public to get as engaged as possible, as soon as possible.

A point of discussion that arose in your ‘Shed a Light’ talk just now was the reconciliation of the profit motive with environmental protection. But by the time companies are sufficiently incentivised by environmental damage harming their profits – won’t that reflect the problem having become, in effect, insurmountable?

Well, we’re already in that ballpark on the climate side of things, anyway. We can’t leave this to economic forces alone – but what we can do is attempt to invoke an economic narrative. This is not purely about the free market; it also requires regulation from government. And that’s what politics is for! Markets can favour a small number of people against a potentially much larger group of people, and regulation has to intervene to correct that potential market failure and safeguard the interests of wider society. We need politicians to be setting standards: to be giving clear regulatory signals and be putting incentives in place, so that the business world behaves in a way conducive also to the public interest.

Post-Brexit, is the British government going to be in any position to make those kinds of demands?

Well, it’s going to have to be in that position, because that’s its job. Its job is to pursue the interests of the British public. The extent to which it sees the interests of the British public through the lens of unbridled business freedom is down to the voters; we have to demand what we want.

A couple of weeks ago the IPCC declared that we have only 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Is that a realistic target?

We’re far from where we need to be on the climate trajectory. But this IPCC report is the final call: the moment where we either decide to do this, or we don’t. It’s a highly challenging discussion, given the rhetoric of President Trump: it will require an emergency response of the kind that doesn’t appear to be there at the moment. The science is telling us that we’ve basically got a decade to get onto a trajectory of halving emissions. We need decarbonisation of the energy sector, of transport, and we need to reverse (not just stop – reverse) deforestation. All of this can be done, and in fact there are historical examples of economies – like the Western economies during the Second World War – turning in a matter of months to combat an immediate or existential threat. Considering what we need to do to combat climate change, the economic reorientation required is actually relatively moderate. So it is possible.

But I think the problem here is that climate change is never treated as an issue of genuine urgency.

Whereas in actual fact it is as though the fire alarm is going off and everybody is still sitting at their desk.

It’s scary, because you’re dealing with an issue that contains an inherent moral element, but you cannot assume that this moral element will be recognised by those individuals and groups possessed of the immense amounts of power, wealth, and influence required to enact necessary change.

One thing I’ve learned, though, is the extent to which those people who would argue for no action also invoke a moral dimension within their argument. So President Trump, for example, would speak passionately about the interests of West Virginian coalminers, and the imperative to safeguard their jobs. Moral arguments are powerful on the green side of the argument, but they are not unique to that side of the argument. So how we frame this discussion in terms of the wider implications for people at all levels of society is really quite important.