We need a new social contract between generations

Guy Shrubsole, Director of the Public Interest Research Centre, believes that the baby boomers need to wise up to their environmental responsibilities towards future generations

“Society”, wrote Edmund Burke, is “a contract… between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born”. Considered the grandfather of conservatism and a staunch opponent of revolutions, Burke’s words today appear strikingly radical. Our present high-carbon society prioritises current generations at the expense of all future ones, whilst Thatcherite ideology encourages us not to believe in society at all.

Fossil responsibilities

We need a new social contract for the end of the fossil fuel age. As Britain embarks on the transition to a low-carbon energy system, the big question is who foots the bill. The country needs to invest in the region of £500bn over the next 15 years to build the requisite green infrastructure.

Given that in 2009–10 we devoted just £12.6bn to green investment – on a par with what we spent on perfumes and cosmetics – it’s clear that we face an uphill struggle. So how should society share out the necessary cost for the transformation?

Government clearly can do much to structure policies encouraging investment, whilst energy companies should be obliged to re-invest some of their colossal profits to make our energy system fit for future generations. But what’s also needed is a wider shift in public consciousness. The UK needs a new, unspoken social contract that obliges the baby boomer generation to make a pact with its offspring and those yet unborn.

That pact is for boomers to make the investments needed to pass on to their children a green inheritance.

The justification for such a pact is threefold:

  1. Baby boomers have done much to create the climate problem, promoting a culture of consumerism that continues to boost emissions even as they are outsourced to overseas manufacturing markets. Despite being in power for much of the past two decades, baby boomers have failed to yet resolve the climate crisis.
  2. The impacts of climate change will be borne harder by the rising generation and its descendents than the previous one.
  3. The baby boomer generation is very much in a position to pay, because of its accumulated wealth, whereas the ‘jilted generation’ is still struggling to get jobs.

Tapping the baby boomers

The current payment provisions take little account of these disparities of culpability, suffering or wealth. Utilities will pass on the costs of energy system upgrades through electricity and gas bills: everyone, rightly, will chip in, but like most consumption-based taxes the impact on society will be regressive.

Some government green subsidies are paid for through general taxation, to which rich baby boomers rightly contribute more than unemployed young people – though income tax banding could become more progressive. Yet it is the great reserves of wealth accrued by many baby boomers, locked up in property, bank accounts and pension funds, that remain the untapped assets in the green investment debate.

Unlocking this wealth and directing it towards financing the low-carbon transition is the challenge of the next decade. Reform of the tax system, as currently being investigated by the Liberal Democrats, may help this.

But so too would baby boomers actively choosing to change their investment decisions: opting to take out shares in clean energy start-ups, lobbying pension companies to sink their holdings into green infrastructure, pushing government to introduce Green ISAs in which to store savings (something Chancellor George Osborne shied away from legislating for earlier this year). Waves of hot money generated by decades of wealth-creation must be turned towards cooling the planet.

Paying their dues

Most of all, baby boomers must ensure that the costs of investment are not simply pushed onto future generations. The gas industry, for instance, has recently begun pushing shale gas as a “transition fuel” capable of cutting emissions at a lower cost than renewables. In reality, it is simply another fossil fuel, with a carbon footprint far higher than any renewable form of energy (and perhaps even as high as coal); any new “dash for gas” in the UK would mean missing our carbon targets and delaying the investment into real ‘transition fuels’ – wind, wave, solar – until the 2020s.

The costs of tackling climate change would thus be pushed onto the younger generation. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Burke stated that we are “temporary possessors or life renters” of this world, with a moral obligation not to squander our natural inheritance, lest we leave “to those who come after… a ruin instead of a habitation.” Baby boomers can avoid being castigated for leaving a ruined planet to their children by paying off their ecological debts now. A shining green inheritance would be among the greatest gifts a parent could give to their children.