James Murray argues green businesses are losing out to their old-school rivals in the lobbying stakes
The angry reaction of green groups to news that the government is to include all of the UK's 278 environmental laws in its controversial "red tape challenge" is both understandable and unsurprising. After all, there is something concerning about the "greenest government ever" casually branding the Climate Change Act and Wildlife and Countryside Act as "red tape", before inviting the internet's anti-green trolls to lay into them in a taxpayer-sponsored moan-fest – sorry, I meant "crowdsourcing exercise".
It is tempting to complain about the ideology of those within government that instinctively see all regulations as an unnecessary burden on business. However, it is largely counter-productive for the environmental movement to plead special measures when the "red tape challenge" will invite public comments on more than 21,000 pieces of regulation.
Only regulations covering taxation and national security will be exempt from the exercise and its attempt to identify those rules that most damage business. There is a strong case for arguing that the Climate Change Act qualifies as a piece of national security legislation – indeed, foreign secretary William Hague has made precisely this argument. But all other pieces of environmental regulation must surely play their part in the exercise, alongside regulations on health and safety, accountancy, advertising and product rules that other interest groups would regard as similarly sacred.
Moreover, while there are many good green regulations that deliver significant net benefits in terms of the economy and quality of life, there are also some poorly structured regulations that could do with being reviewed and reformed. If this exercise helps identify environmental regulations that could be improved, it is to be welcomed.
No, the problem is not the inclusion of environmental regulations in the "red tape challenge". It is the ability of green groups and, more importantly, green businesses to defend them.
The Department for Business has suggested that environmental regulations have been included because the government wants to give businesses the chance to comment on them. This confirms that people within Whitehall still subscribe to the view that regulations in general and environmental regulations in particular are anti-business.
This school of thought remains remarkably strong, and not just on the laissez-faire Tory backbenches. There are plenty of politicians, civil servants and business leaders who still regard regulation as inherently bad, despite the environmental and financial crises that have resulted from the failure of regulators to handle risks.
Of course there are also growing numbers of companies that offer a counterpoint to this point of view. Companies that openly accept that intelligent environmental regulations are not just necessary but desirable, providing a means of managing polluting externalities, reducing climate change risks, and creating new products and commercial opportunities.
However, when it comes to the court of public and political opinion, the corporate dinosaurs prove far more effective at getting their message across. They out-manoeuvre their more progressive counterparts, exploiting their contacts in government and friends in the press to push a simple message about the ineffectiveness of environmental regulation.
This phenomenon has reached its nadir in the US where the Tea Party cabal has so effectively hijacked the political narrative that even modest emissions rules that command widespread public support are routinely denigrated and look likely to be delayed or scrapped. Things are nowhere near as bad on this side of the Atlantic, but it is still easy to imagine that the "red tape challenge" will be dominated by those keen to rant and rave against the iniquities of green regulations.
This challenge once again highlights the urgent need for the growing number of green business leaders to act. Those who genuinely understand and support the need for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions must stick their heads above the parapet and make the case for environmental regulations. They need to break the overly simplistic dichotomy that says businesses oppose green regulations and tree-hugging NGOs support them.
The reality is that polluting externalities and the emerging nature of green technologies means that the low-carbon economy is led by and dependent upon policy at this stage of its development. Unless green businesses and green business leaders are willing to get their hands dirty and engage with the development of those policies, they are constantly at risk from vested interests that wish to see those green policies repealed.
Green businesses must urgently find a coherent and effective voice, or else they risk failing the "red tape challenge" in more ways than one.
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