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David Cameron yesterday described the need to make drastic cuts as “critical” and “urgent”. He said that his predcessors in government had “thought the good times would go on forever”, and that not we must face up to the fact that “we have been living beyond our means”. Profligacy and waste “is the legacy our generation threatens to leave the next.” The current situation is “unsustainable”. Now is the time to “face the music” and stand up to the “most urgent issue facing Britain today”.

Cameron was, of course, talking about cuts to public spending. But wouldn’t it be nice if he used the same language, the same gravitas and urgency to talk about need to cut carbon emissions, in order to address the far more urgent, far more dangerous and far more unjust problem of climate change?

We’re often told that politicians can’t take drastic measures to tackle climate change because they are unpopular, or because it would be electoral suicide to talk about the need to make sacrifices. But this whole discussion of the deficit, and what George Osbourne has called the ‘painful’ cuts to come, shows that our political discourse can cope with talk of unpopular sacrifices. So why, if our Prime Minister can make a grave and serious speech about the deficit,  can’t he do the same with climate change? If he thinks people can cope with hearing that there will be painful cuts to public services, why does he think that they’ll baulk at the idea of painful cuts to their carbon budget?

At nef, we don’t believe that tackling climate change means sacrificing everything we hold dear. In fact, we’re adamant that the Great Transition to a sustainable economy could result in us living happier, more meaningful lives. But we’d be foolish to say that such a transition would be easy. It won’t be. It’ll be the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced. And yet no politician can be honest about it. None of them are talking as frankly about the need to cut climate emissions as they are about the need to cut spending. Something is seriously awry when we make a huge fuss over the deficit, while the climate on which our economic and social stability depends is getting ever nearer to meltdown.

Letter to the Financial Times, Friday 26 February.

Sir, The Institute of Directors claims (report, February 23) that the UK could not cope with the European Union’s proposal to increase paid maternity leave. But there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the UK’s public finances and economy could benefit from more investment in the early years of childhood.

The UK currently spends £161bn a year tackling preventable social problems that arise from disadvantaged childhoods, including crime, obesity, mental illness and family breakdown: far more than any other country in Europe. The UK is also ungenerous on parental leave: despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the European Union, the UK spends only 0.11 per cent of gross domestic product on parental leave, offers no statutory pay at a full-time equivalent rate and allows fathers to take only two weeks’ paid leave.

Countries that invest in provisions for early childhood, including full-time equivalent paid parental leave and universal childcare, tend to have far fewer social problems, and therefore save money on public services. Finland offers both parents 35 weeks of fully paid leave each and spends 0.81 per cent of GDP on parental leave, but it spends less than a quarter of what the UK does on coping with social problems per head of capita.

The EU proposals also have positive implications for gender equality. Countries that offer more paid parental leave also have a greater percentage of women participating in the labour market, who find it easier to balance family commitments with working life.

Contrary to what the IoD thinks, more paid parental leave would not leave businesses and the state “picking up the bill”, but would deliver real long-term savings, a stronger and more cohesive society and, most important of all, happier, healthier childhoods. Investing in children would be good for us all.

Jody Aked
Nicola Steuer
Eilís Lawlor
nef (the new economics foundation)
London SE11, UK

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.