He who Adairs, wins
Lord Adair Turner caused a ruckus by criticising the government’s green deal. Here the Climate Change Committee chair tells Jess McCabe why he spoke out and what his legacy will be
The plush, open-plan office of the Climate Change Committee is nestled in one of London’s wealthiest areas. Sloane Square - shopping central for well-to-do Londoners - seems an incongruous choice for the headquarters of an organisation aiming to ensure the UK lives within its environmental means.
Its staff, arriving for work in the fluorescent yellow jackets that identify city cyclists, are the only clue to the green mission lurking in the midst of all the refined opulence.
Lord Adair Turner, however, fits in perfectly. Like his surroundings, the 56-year-old chair of the CCC is dapper, affluent and genteel; he arrives for our meeting in a trilby, and talks in depth about the work done so far to insulate his two homes, one in a London conservation area, the other a cottage in Hampshire.
‘We were like a lot of people spending a lot of money and putting out a lot of CO2 emissions, not to heat our house but to heat the air around the house,’ he says in soft, plummy tones. ‘But even us who really care about these things [insulating] had been sitting there saying we’re going to do it for about three years before we did it.’
Well-heeled he may be, but Lord Turner is far from a pushover. Just before Christmas, he delivered the perfect uppercut to the government’s proposals for its flagship energy efficiency retrofit policy, the green deal, and the energy company obligation - a subsidy to support insulation of fuel-poor homes and tricky insulation jobs.
In an open letter to then energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne, Lord Turner slated the ‘low ambition’ of the policy, which is meant to kick off a wave of energy efficient home improvements. The correspondence warned that, based on the government’s own impact assessment, the policies will only cut the UK’s annual carbon emissions by 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2020, less than half the 5 million tonnes which the CCC estimates the housing sector must contribute.
As it turned out, the letter was an explosive parting shot - Lord Turner announced shortly afterwards that he was stepping down from the committee, which is the independent body charged with advising the UK government on climate policy. The CCC is currently advertising for his successor with Lord Turner remaining in the hot seat until one is found.
It is, perhaps, Lord Turner’s determination to speak out that has earned the peer, whose CV includes a stint at oil giant BP and who spent most of his career in the City, plaudits from the green sector. Dave Timms, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, sums up his feelings with the simple line: ‘Adair Turner rocks.’
So how has he earned such a solid reputation? What does he think about the housing sector’s sustainability credentials? And does he regret that letter?
When Sustainable Housing sat down with Lord Turner, it quickly became apparent that the answer to the latter question is a resounding ‘no’. While the letter prompted numerous dramatic headlines, it is clear that while Lord Turner is happy to speak out on important issues, he is more of a diplomat than an attack dog - probably a handy trick if you are looking to influence policy makers.
Today he explains that the letter was sent out of concern that the government was taking too much of an ‘economic purist’s’ perspective on where to best spend the pot of money available for the energy company obligation subsidy, and ‘switching off the pragmatic point of view’. (See box, overleaf: Lord Adair Turner on…).
In other words, he feels government restrictions on who can access ECO subsidy are too tight and limit its impact too much. The ECO subsidy will be funded by a small increase to everyone’s energy bills, but social landlords may not be able to dip into the £325 million a year ECO ‘affordable warmth’ pot, designed to tackle fuel poverty. And to Lord Turner’s consternation, some types of insulation - loft and cavity wall - will probably not be eligible under the ‘hard to treat’ criteria.
Lord Turner believes that the social housing sector, and housing in general, will face one of the toughest challenges in the country in cutting its emissions. ‘I think the jury’s out on whether it’s going to be as easy to make progress on [housing] as we’re making in other areas,’ he says.
‘It’s quite easy if someone wants to decide to buy a more fuel-efficient car. You simply buy this car, not that car. There’s no extra hassle, and you get an immediate economic benefit,’ he says by way of comparison - his family has bought a Prius. ‘You come back to the level of houses and of course you’ve got to make complicated decisions. There’s the dust, there’s the disruption, it’s just a much more disruptive process.’ For this reason, a direct subsidy from ECO will probably be needed even to get the easier insulation jobs done, he argues.
The green deal letter was an example, says Colin Butfield, head of campaigns at environment group WWF, of how Lord Turner has been prepared to deliver difficult messages to government during his four years as chair of the CCC. The committee has benefitted from the leadership of ‘someone like Adair Turner who could fight the top-level battles’, he adds.
Asking the tough questions
Lord Turner has, in some ways, the perfect combination for the job. First, he’s willing to tackle political shibboleths. Last year, he questioned whether rich countries should aim to grow their economies, for example. He has described much of the financial sector as ‘socially useless’.
But he’s been able to hone this reputation in part, observers say, precisely because he also has the stamp of the establishment about him. His background is in academia, business and finance, not climate advocacy. ‘People find it interesting that someone from that background has got involved in climate change,’ Lord Turner says. ‘I’ve always been very convinced that we need to bring to the climate change area rigorous, economic quantitative analysis which actually worked out what’s possible.’
He started reading about climate change while at the Confederation of British Industry in the 1990s and gradually became convinced of the science.
‘I’d always been worried about countryside destruction, wildlife encroachments on habitat, biodiversity. Why? I don’t know. It’s just somewhere along the line I care,’ he says.
When I ask what part of his job at the CCC keeps him up at night, however, Lord Turner seems surprised.
‘Every time I come here, I always come back and tell my wife in the evening I really enjoyed it because it’s fascinating, and I think it’s very worthwhile. Are there things that worry me in it? Not really.’
It’s perhaps this ability to calmly analyse the task at hand that leads author Chris Goodall, who shared a room with him at Cambridge University, to say: ‘In a rational world, he would be prime minister. He’s the best technocrat prime minister we never had.’
And while tackling climate change is a huge job, Lord Turner has other massive tasks on his mind - which is what is ultimately costing the CCC its chair. At the moment he is also chair of the Financial Services Authority as the banking sector tries to rehabilitate its image after the financial crisis. ‘The FSA job, although described as a three-day a week job, is a more than full-time job,’ he explains.
The current climate
Aside from his parting shot to the government, what shape does Lord Turner leave the CCC in as it fights to ensure the UK keeps on track to slash carbon emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050?
On paper, Lord Turner’s stint at the climate chief job has been a success: ambitious interim carbon targets have been set, and the UK’s emissions are, so far, declining fast enough to meet them. Not bad for an organisation that dates back to 2008, when the Climate Change Act became law. Then, there was a cross-party consensus: just three MPs voted against the legislation, which made the UK the first country to have a long-term, legally binding emissions target. It established the CCC to help set carbon ‘budgets’ for the UK, measure progress and advise government.
‘I spent about half the time working on climate change in the first eight months [at the CCC], before I also got the FSA job. I got the thing going,’ Lord Turner says. ‘I’m very happy with what we’ve achieved at the committee. I think we’ve set a standard for very high-quality analysis of these issues, our recommendations have been accepted. I think we have a machine that does excellent analysis.’
A lasting legacy
Under Lord Turner’s guidance, the CCC has set the first four carbon budgets, and all four have been approved by parliament. The fourth, and most politically challenging so far, will see the UK slash its emissions 50 per cent from 1990 levels by 2027.
He describes the Climate Change Act as ‘one very powerful lever’. One of then chancellor Gordon Brown’s first moves in government, back in 1997, was to hand over the power of setting interest rates to the a monetary policy committee at the Bank of England. Lord Turner says the Climate Change Act did the same for climate policy.
Reaching, as he does repeatedly, for the language of economics, Lord Turner enthusiastically describes the act as an ‘external commitment device’. He leans forward, chopping his hands in the air to emphasise the point.
‘If you leave that to parliament and government to decide everything year by year, without that external commitment device - through a process of “I want to be good, but not quite yet” - you’ll never quite get there.’
So far, the UK is on track to stay within its first carbon budget, which ends this year. The country’s CO2 emissions have dropped from 624 million tonnes in 2008, when the CCC was established, to 590 million tonnes in 2010 - the most recent data.
‘In terms of what has happened to the UK’s carbon emissions, we’ve made stunning progress,’ Lord Turner says.
The peer also notes that the average person’s CO2 emissions still need to go down from about 8.3 tonnes per person per year, to around two tonnes - the carbon footprint of a Brazilian person today. This implies a dramatic change.
But, given the past few months have seen the government taken to court over cuts to the solar feed-in tariff, which led to social landlords cancelling and then hurrying to restart programmes to install PV on their tenants’ roofs, combined with uncertainty over government policy and mixed signals over the green agenda, the reassuring presence of Lord Turner is perhaps just what the sector has needed.
His replacement will have a more difficult job still, and solid, steady shoes to fill.