Coalition review: energy and climate change

Published in The House Magazine, No.1411, Volume 36, on 15th March 2012. The Coalition Review looks into how far the government has stuck to the Coalition Agreement in key policy areas. This week Lord Turnbull, Michael Meacher, and I each assess how the government has done on energy and tackling climate change. See my response below.

One of the David Cameron’s first actions on becoming Prime Minister was to walk across Whitehall from Downing Street to the Department of Energy and Climate Change and announce that the Coalition would be ‘the greenest government ever’. It was a move that really attracted political attention. It seemed to promise that hugging a husky had been more than an eye-catching stunt for a leader of the Opposition.

Since then the Government has given environmentalists more than enough reason to regret their early enthusiasm. Within a few months it had announced the abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, set about clipping the wings of the Environment Agency and Natural England, decided to replace 1,000 pages of detailed planning guidance with 50 pages of ambiguous text and decided to cull badgers to please farmers.

To add insult to injury, the Chancellor then launched a totally gratuitous attack on the environment in his Conference speech and Autumn Statement. Protecting the environment, he claimed, will ‘price British business out of world markets’. We must not ‘burden them [businesses] with endless social and environmental goals’. Regulations must not be allowed to place ‘ridiculous costs on British business’.

The pledge to be the greenest government ever seems to have been abandoned as quickly as it was made. But there is one green area where the Prime Minister has stuck to his guns.  The passage in the Coalition Agreement dealing with climate change, Section 10, is one of the most detailed in the document. It contains 24 separate pledges.

It is too soon to do a complete audit, but some of those promises have already been delivered in full. The Government is pushing EU to raise its emissions reduction target. It has cancelled the third runway at Heathrow. There will be a carbon floor price.

Some are a work in progress. A Green Investment Bank has been announced despite fierce opposition from Treasury officials but it is not at all clear that it will be a real bank. And, if those officials have their way it will never be allowed to create the promised innovative ways to permit individuals to invest in low carbon infrastructure. The Green Deal is up and running, but without a real Green Investment Bank it is in danger of failing to make a significant impact.

Others are no longer operative. No-one really believes that there will be new nuclear power stations without public subsidies. All that is in doubt is whether the English language can be tortured enough to conceal this from the consumers and taxpayers who will have to pay them. The money for the promised carbon capture and storage programme has disappeared back into the Treasury’s vaults. Few believe it will re-emerge anytime soon.

The Prime Minister’s personal commitment, however, remains firm. In accepting the Climate Change Committee’s advice on the fourth round of carbon budgets his was the decisive voice in resisting pressure from the Treasury to weaken them.

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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