environment politics

The greenest government ever?

This weekend saw Ed Milliband elected as leader of the Labour party – an unexpected turn of events, but a welcome one in my opinion. I don’t know if he’ll be able to rally a divided Labour party and turn it into something electable, but he’s still my favourite candidate. Milliband was formerly the minister for Energy and Climate Change, and he’s been a passionate and effective voice in government on social justice as well as environmental issues.

That’s a role I hope he can continue as leader of the opposition. David Cameron invited us to ‘vote blue, go green’, and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition entered office with the announcement that they would be the ‘greenest government ever’. So far it’s been a pretty mixed start, and Ed Milliband will have a vital role in keeping them accountable to their promises.

There have been some welcome developments on climate change and the environment, but just last week the coalition did a u-turn on two green measures that had been in their manifesto, so I thought I might just review the record so far.

  • To start with those u-turns, the coalition agreement spelt out that it would take “measures to make the import or possession of illegal timber a criminal offence.” This is vital in preserving forests in developing countries, but last week the Green Party received a letter saying “we will not be pursuing further UK legislative action at this stage.” This is a real shame, especially for countries like Madagascar that are being plundered by illegal loggers.
  • ” If a Conservative government is elected,” said MP Charles Hendry before the election, “we would ensure that micro-generation equipment installed before feed-in tariffs come into effect will nevertheless be entitled to the same terms as new installations.” Last week DECC’s Chris Huhne said this would not be possible, as ” it does not represent value for money.” I kind of expected this, as it would have cost a fortune to roll all existing renewable installations into the scheme. It’s something that shouldn’t have been promised in the first place.
  • On the positive side, Huhne announced over the summer that he was lifting the ban on councils making income through energy generation. This frees up councils to install renewables and sell electricity back into the grid, a huge opportunity and one that I know is already being investigated by my own council in Luton.
  • All three main parties suggested a Green Investment Bank in their manifestos, due to be funded through the sale of government assets. The original funding plans were written up under Labour, and have duly been shelved. Nothing has been put in their place and George Osborne has been silent on the issue. Let’s hope he puts that right in the upcoming budget, not least because with cross-party support, this scheme should be an easy win for the government.
  • Alongside France and Germany, the UK led the way in proposing a 30% CO2 emissions cut across the EU by 2020. This was a welcome example of the leadership the UK can and should be showing in international negotiations, and hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.
  • The coalition promised an emissions standard for power stations, meaning that “a new generation of unabated coal power plants could not be built in this country,” according to David Cameron. Plans to bring in a standard have been postponed, meaning there’s a good chance a new coal station in Scotland will get the go-ahead. It’s important to get the emissions standard right, but there should be a moratorium on new coal power stations while it’s developed.
  • A large number of environment or energy related funding initiatives are being cut at the moment in the search for government savings. Cuts announced so far include £12.5 million from the Carbon Trust, £4.7m intended for bio-energy infrastructure, £3m from offshore wind investment, and £1m from geothermal. A lot of this is in grants for test projects and pilots, which risks holding back the development and upscaling of renewable energy technologies. Some of these are being replaced with other grants, so it’s too early to tell what effect this restructuring will have.
  • Among the list of government bodies to be abolished are the Renewables Advisory Board, who were instrumental in formulating the feed-in tariff. The Sustainable Development Commission and the Commission for Integrated Transport have also been scrapped, as well as advisory boards on pesticides, pollution, air quality and animal welfare. There’s no doubt that we have too many odd advisory boards in the UK, so these might not necessarily be bad decisions. But it strikes me as rather optimistic to think that government departments can pick up all these extra responsibilities while simultaneously reducing their budgets and capacity.
  • In the past week the government has announced a ‘Green Deal’ to create jobs by insulating homes. We’ll have to wait until the Energy Security and Green Economy Bill to see all the detail, but it should allow householders to pay for efficiency measures, and then repay their investment through the savings. The failure to tie economic stimulus to green investment was a huge missed opportunity in Britain’s response to the recession, so it’s great that at least some of the Green New Deal thinking has filtered through.

In summary, there’s a little to celebrate, and a lot of uncertainty. The coalition government has thrown a lot of things up in the air on the environment and climate change, and it’s impossible to say which way things are going to fall. The coalition will show its true colours in the next few months. I’m sure it can be the greenest government ever, but we will need to hold them to it.

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