The Clean Tech Boom

founder of UK Green movement, ex-Director of Friends of Earth, Chair of UK Sustainable Development Commission speech at Vancouver May 2, 2007 (58 min); followed by round-table Q and A




Jonathon Porritt: The constant ecowarrior

( From The Independent

He's posh. He's nice. He's very well connected. He knows what it'll take to save the world. And that, he tells Marie Woolf, means Tony Blair not kowtowing to the US

Published: 06 November 2005
Jonathon Porritt was a teacher in a rough comprehensive next to Wormwood Scrubs when he discovered environmentalism. His teenage pupils had, he found, never seen a cow. Porritt was determined to introduce them to one. The young teacher, who had recently left Oxford with a first, took his rambunctious pupils on country field trips, where they read poetry and romped across fields; then he left them alone in the woods so they could experience complete darkness and silence for the first time in their lives.

"They were really tough city kids. The White City estate was our main catchment area. These were just godawful places to be brought up," he recalls. "We took them into the woods, split them up and left them alone. I didn't really come into environmentalism through a love of nature; I came into environmentalism through looking at what happened to children whose lives were blighted by there being no nature."

What the children did not know was that the kind teacher who took them to the woods was also nursing a secret: not only had he attended Eton, he was also the son of the surgeon to King George VI and in line to inherit a baronetcy.

Sitting in the bar of a swanky London hotel Mr Porritt, as he prefers to be called, looks somewhat embarrassed when the question of his title arises. An amiable fellow with mannerisms and an accent faintly reminiscent of Prince Charles, whom he advises, is looking a little sorry for himself. He is hobbling around on crutches after falling downstairs and wrecking his knee.

"Please don't use the title," he begs, waving his hands expressively. "Please don't make a thing about it because I hate it, really. It's just my dad was an amazing, wonderful man and he ended up incredibly successful in his life and he was made a baronet. It is a hereditary title. They have discontinued them now."

After his father died, in 1994, the budding Green tried, unsuccessfully, to disown the title.

"When my mother was alive I said, 'I don't really think calling myself sir is really very helpful to my work.' She said, 'I will disown you if you disown this title!' She was furious. She said, 'For God's sake, you are dishonouring your father's life!' So I said: 'OK, well, fine. I don't want to upset anybody about this. It's not a big deal as far as I am concerned. I don't want to cause any pain or hurt.' The title is still there. I just choose not to use it."

Porritt, who is now Tony Blair's top adviser on environmental issues, is quite big on not causing pain to people, even when it comes to delivering difficult messages on the environment. He is keen on cajoling politicians and multinational corporations to think green - not so keen on chastising and humiliating them.

"We have a very strong rule about working with the positive energy in people," he says. "If you work with the positive energy, you will see a faster process of change than if you bludgeon people into doing things. You need to get connected."

Does he feel he is able to "get connected" to the Prime Minister's positive energy? He looks momentarily flustered by the question.

"I admire a lot about him. I do, genuinely," he replies rapidly. "I have to keep saying this because people forget it: on climate change, if he hadn't done what he has done, we would be looking at a world in which there was no political leadership on this agenda."

But last week Tony Blair dismayed the environmental lobby when he appeared to signal a shift away from the "target" system for tackling climate change in favour of a system of "informal mechanisms". His assertion, at a summit of environment and energy ministers, took environmentalists by surprise, including Porritt. He spent an entire day trying to clarify the position with No 10 on his mobile phone. "It's completely contradictory," he says. "The idea of having guideline targets or non-mandatory targets is a nonsense, to put it absolutely bluntly."

He lays the blame for the apparent change squarely at the feet of President Bush, who is virtually isolated, even in America, in not believing that targets are the answer to cutting greenhouse gases. Porritt declares it "really worrying that a style of thinking in the US seems to have crept into the UK position here". He continues: "The only bit of the system in America that is hanging on to this completely absolutist, anti-Kyoto view is the Bush administration."

Porritt suggests that Blair has been getting an earful from the White House, which has refused steadfastly to sign up to Kyoto. Pointing to one ear and then the other, he says: "He gets the CBI here and George Bush here. I suspect he [Blair] has been on the receiving end of so many dreadfully regressive, unhelpful, backward-looking messages from the Bush administration."

So has Blair really flip-flopped over the need to meet CO2 targets?

"The way I see it, it is not a shift as such; it is an inconsistency that has crept in," he says. "There is a question here of inconsistency, of an inability to keep the line absolutely straight and clear. You get the Prime Minister saying how important targets are in different places."

The Prime Minister's problem, his adviser suggests, may be that he is too anxious to please his audience. "What frustrates me is the inability to develop an absolutely consistent line with all audiences in all circumstances," he says. "I know international diplomacy depends on give and take and being flexible, but the truth is that if one isn't absolutely straight down the line on this, all it does is sow confusion. It doesn't help the message."

The Prime Minister's signal that a target-based approach may not be the only way forward could not come at a more inopportune time. The UK is currently holding the presidencies of both the G8 and the EU and hence is technically in the driving seat on the international approach to climate change. Porritt urges Blair to get the line sorted and stick to it. "Our Prime Minister tends to differentiate the message for different audiences - and that gets him into trouble, in my opinion," he says. "I have said, 'Look, the one thing you really could do would be to work out exactly what it is that you feel about this.'"

He says the Prime Minister should stop "worrying about President Bush as the sole representative of reality in America".

In his book Capitalism: As If the World Matters, published on Thursday, Porritt argues that environmental targets can stimulate growth - especially in green technology, such as renewables.

But this former "revolving co-chair" of the Ecology Party takes a more cautious line than Downing Street on nuclear power, which he says offers no miracle solutions to global warming.

"Nuclear power should absolutely never be described as a carbon-neutral source of energy. It is absolute rubbish. That really annoys me a lot."

With carbon emissions rising in the UK and the Government in danger of missing its CO2 targets, Porritt's team has provided Downing Street with a detailed road-map of how to meet them. But is he worried that despite the directions the Government is veering off course?

"I think that, given where we started, they are still on the road," says Porritt, contemplatively. "But they are going down it a damn sight too slowly."


Born: 6 July 1950. His father Arthur was an Olympic athlete and subsequently Governor-General of New Zealand, who became a baronet in 1963, before being elevated to the peerage in 1973. Porritt inherited the baronetcy in 1994.

Education: Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, from which he graduated with first-class honours. He then trained as a barrister but became an inner-city English teacher in 1975.

Career: Chair of the UK Ecology Party, now the Green Party, from 1979 until 1984, when he published his first book, Seeing Green. He became director of Friends of the Earth, a position he retained for six years. He now chairs the Government's Sustainable Development Commission.

Lucky break: Appointed as an environmental adviser to the Prince of Wales in 1992, causing raised eyebrows among his Green Party colleagues.