How Green is my Government?

Written for publication in May 2011.

                                                ‘ by their fruits ye shall know them’
                                                                                                                                       Matthew 7.20

In politics, the fog of war is replaced by the miasmas of spin and the murk of tabloid trash. It takes a patient eye and a strong stomach to see a little reality amid the fantasies. Add the inability of today’s journalists to await the actual events before writing the headlines and arriving at a meaningful judgement on any current issue is no easy task.

The Prime Minister’s promise to form ‘the greenest government ever’ was a surprise. His deft use of green issues to help dispel the Tory’s image as the nasty party had been watched with a mixture of admiration at his nerve and cynicism about his motives. No-one thought he meant it. Even now, in the deeper depths of Whitehall, the mandarins don’t believe that he really does.

Hence the shock at his decision, and it was his, to agree to the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee on the Fourth Carbon Budget. This required him to over-rule his Chancellor, something no Prime Minister relishes. He was right to do so.

The vacuous anxieties of Treasury officials about the impact of this decision on growth in 2023 were properly ignored. After all, they have some difficulty telling us reliably what might happen to growth next year, let alone in the next decade.

But, as one swallow does not make a summer, one heroic decision does not make this the greenest government ever. It does, however, let us see the battle lines within the government. On one side there are the goliaths of the Treasury, Business, Communities and Transport. On the green side are the davids of Climate and Environment. Refereeing is No.10 with Letwin, a green ally, something no-one would call Francis Maude, and a bunch of ex-Treasury officials.

If the only test of greenness were climate change, the government would be well on its way to fulfilling its promise. Led by one of the coalition’s more able ministers, DECC has done well. In addition to the Fourth Carbon Budget, Mr Huhne has won battles to stimulate energy efficiency with the Green Deal and to introduce an innovative Renewable Heat Initiative. He has also been an effective champion of a real Green Investment Bank without which the Green Deal will not work.

Then there is the other side of the balance sheet. The debacle over the privatisation of the Forestry Commission will stick in the memory. Rather unfairly blamed on Caroline Spelman, this was actually an unintended consequence of the Cabinet Office’s quango cull. This not only abolished the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission but sought powers to abolish 14 other environmental public bodies, including the Environment Agency and National England, should it so wish.

Undermining the already weak institutional arrangements for managing Britain’s environment is not the best way to begin delivering the greenest government ever. Add into the mix Eric Pickles clear ambition to abolish the planning system in its entirety and it is clear that the government’s record so far on green is mixed.

This government is already acquiring a reputation for breaking its promises. As the 15 green organisations who signed a letter to the Prime Minister in mid-May pointed out ‘there is still scope for your Government to be the greenest ever, but it will require both urgency and resolve.’  It will also require the Prime Minister to lead as vigorously from the front on the whole green agenda as he has on climate change.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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