Why Sir Richard Lambert is the right man for the Committee on Climate Change

Sir Richard Lambert and John Gummer are reportedly in the running for the role, but it is the former CBI man who has the edge

01 May 2012, 00:05

It is one of the most important roles in the country, charged with independently assessing the UK's transition to a low carbon economy and the government's efforts to aid that transition. It has the power to embarrass governments, inform public opinion, and shape the policy environment for green businesses – which is why more attention should be being paid to the race to replace Lord Turner as chair of the Committee on Climate Change.

According to reports in the Financial Times it increasingly looks like a straight run-off between the former head of the CBI, Sir Richard Lambert, and the former Conservative Environment Secretary John Gummer, now Lord Debden.

It goes without saying that green groups would like to an experienced environmentalist to take up the role, after all who would not enjoy seeing an Attenborough or a Porritt periodically slamming the government for failing to take climate change more seriously. But the government has rightly decided that the Committee should be chaired by someone in a similar mould to Lord Turner, with extensive experience in and around government and business.

The chair of the committee is a position that will require considerable talents in balancing different points of view and policy responses, while also managing a wide array of environmental, economic and political priorities. It will be hard enough building widespread support for many of the committee's more controversial recommendations as it is, without them being presented by a dyed in the wool environmental campaigner who will be accused of failing to understand competing economic concerns.

So the reported shortlist makes sense, but if the government is to choose between Lambert and Gummer there can only be one winner from a green business perspective. The next chair of the Committee on Climate Change has to be Sir Richard Lambert.

This assessment will be controversial in many green quarters. Lambert is both a former head of the CBI and a former editor of the Financial Times – two venerable institutions who have often belittled or undermined environmental causes while failing to pay sufficient attention to green businesses or the fast-emerging low carbon economy. It is easy to see why some green groups will immediately argue that they do not want to see "a CBI-man" passing judgment on the UK's climate change strategy.

But while such a position is to be expected it also misunderstands Lambert's role as a reformer at both the CBI and the FT. It was Lambert who enjoyed a decade of success at the FT, broadening its coverage beyond narrow financial concerns and cementing its position as the world's premier source of business news and analysis. Just as it was Lambert that reinvigorated the CBI after the unreconstructed corporate dinosaur days of Sir Digby Jones, putting it on a noticeably more progressive path, particularly on environmental issues, which has been continued by his successor John Cridland. Significantly, he also chaired the Lambert Review on the relationship between business and higher education, an issue that remains crucial to the success of the low carbon economy.

As CBI director-general Lambert was a vocal critic of both the current and previous government's lack of progress on green economic issues, using his last few years in the post to repeatedly criticise ministers on their failure to deliver much-needed energy and planning reforms, carbon reporting rules, a properly capitalised Green Investment Bank, and funding for carbon capture and storage, while praising measures such as the Climate Change Act.

He was also not above criticising businesses, once blaming the banking sector for failing to deliver the innovations in financing required to drive investment in energy efficiency. Yes, he sided with carbon intensive firms on plenty of issues, as bosses of the CBI often do, but talking to some of those who worked with him, behind the scenes he was an articulate advocate of the green economy, capable of cajoling politicians and business leaders into taking climate-related issues more seriously.

Anyone who thinks Lambert would be a soft touch on climate change needs to look more closely at the work he undertook at the CBI.

More important still, there are few people in the country with a more impressive black book than an erstwhile boss of the country's most influential business group and most influential business newspaper.

The Committee on Climate Change is staffed by many of the UK's leading economists and scientists and has a remit designed to rigorously enforce its independence. As such the reports, conclusions, and recommendations put forward by the Climate Change Committee should not change significantly, regardless of who is serving as chair. It is the chair's role not to write the committee's reports, but to use their influence and presentational skills to ensure they have an impact. Lambert's ability to open doors and get meetings with the UK's top business and political leaders, not to mention his former colleagues in Fleet Street, is likely to prove invaluable.

Lord Debden is without doubt a similarly experienced and impressive candidate. He was a respected Environment Secretary, has chaired several green businesses, proven himself a powerful advocate of environmental legislation through his work with Globe International, and more recently played a key role in the Quality of Life report that helped shape David Cameron's position on green policies.

But several factors count against him. Politics is a rough game, and rightly or wrongly when people think of John Gummer it is still in association with his fateful decision to invite the cameras in to photograph his young daughter eating a burger at the height of the BSE crisis. Moreover, his public profile has remained relatively low over the past 15 years and it is hard to envisage him using the position as chair of the Committee on Climate Change to command too many headlines.

Most importantly, however, the committee is meant to be independent and it is difficult to understand how the government could defend appointing someone with such close links to the Conservative Party. This might be hugely unfair, and there is nothing to suggest Debden would not publicly castigate the Prime Minister if the UK's commitment to tackling climate change slipped, but such an overtly political appointment would still undermine confidence in the committee. Lord Prescott has plenty of experience of climate change policy, but something tells me Conservative MPs would be none too happy if a future Labour government handed him the role.

According to Jim Pickard at the FT, none of these concerns bother David Cameron and he is keen to hand Debden the role, while Ed Davey is thought to have recommended that Lambert gets the job.

Neither candidate will satisfy everyone in the green community, just as neither candidate would let the committee or the wider green economy down. But if green business leaders want to see the Committee on Climate Change build on its record of occasionally rattling cages in Whitehall while also raising the profile of the low carbon economy, then Lambert is the man to lead it into its second act.

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