This will be “the greenest government ever” said David Cameron exactly a year ago. The bar set by the previous Labour government was low. Incredibly, even with the supposedly eco-friendly Liberal Democrats in government, it looks like this coalition will go under that bar.
Environmentalist Jonathan Porritt says of the 77 measures he’s reviewed for Friends of the Earth: “the bad and the positively ugly indisputably outweigh the good.” And adds that: “All in all, [it is] as close to a nightmare as one can imagine.”(1)
The Guardian’s environmental commentator George Monbiot argues that, based on the coalition’s Red Tape Challenge, which puts at risk every environmental protection law we have: “The “greenest government ever” presents the greatest ever threat to our environment.”(2)
Sustainable food expert Prof. Tim Lang says: “I am not alone in being extremely frustrated at the coalition dropping the work that began to emerge under the last government. Goodness knows, it took a long time to get going. It was painfully slow but at least it got going. The Cabinet Office’s Food Matters (2008) led to Defra’s Food 2030 (2010) and implementation plans were underway only to be parked as the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ (SDC included) took over.”(3)
It’s almost impossible to find an academic, a commentator or an environmentalist who is positive about the coalition’s environmental record. Which is hardly surprising given what’s happening.
In 2009 George Osborne promised that, under a Conservative government, the Treasury would “no longer be the cuckoo in the Whitehall nest when it comes to climate change”. The Treasury would be a “friend not a foe to the environment”, he said.(4) This week it was revealed that the Chancellor and the Treasury are lobbying for the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations on CO2 cuts to be watered down.(5) Not so much a cuckoo as a vulture.
The real cuckoo in the nest is Business Secretary Vince Cable. A letter leaked to The Guardian earlier this week showed that he was also lobbying for the Climate Change Committee proposals to be rejected, thereby making a mockery of of both the Lib Dems’ pre-election call for the CCC to be strengthened and of the party’s plans for a Zero Carbon Britain by 2050. Cable was quoted as saying that: “Agreeing too aggressive a level risks burdening the UK economy, which would be detrimental to UK, undermining the UK’s competitiveness and our attractiveness as a place to do business.” He also proposed buying “carbon offsets” to help the UK meet its emissions targets in the 2020s, instead of boosting green industries.(5)
With hindsight the writing was on the wall pretty early on in the administration when Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman published a deplorable paper on sustainable development and vindictively abolished the Sustainable Development Commission.(6) It wasn’t expensive – it was just saying politically difficult things. She also offered up a 30% cut to the DEFRA budget which has led to delays in all work and deep cuts in flood defence funding.(7) Politically the most disastrous of all was her proposed privatisation of forests which Cameron himself was forced to abandon in the House of Commons.(8) That was a rare win by outraged public opinion but the fight is on every front.
Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, has rowed back on the previous government’s commitment that all new housing would be zero carbon by 2016 infuriating green commentators.(9) The UK Green Building Council’s Chief Executive, Paul King, said: “The world leading commitment that new homes would not add to the carbon footprint of our housing stock from 2016 has been scrapped despite a remarkable consensus between industry and NGOs in support of it… This U-turn will result in loss of confidence leading to lower investment, less innovation, fewer green jobs and fewer carbon reductions. It is a backward step.”(10)
Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has abandoned sustainability indicators for local government and hobbled councils with savage frontloaded cuts which make it virtually impossible for them to take serious action on sustainability issues.(11) He’s also forbidden councils to charge for waste by weight and may provoke a sale of much-needed allotment land by rescinding the Small Holdings & Allotments Act 1908.(12, 13)
The Chancellor wasted £10bn in his recent budget on postponing a rise in fuel duty and rejected a coalition agreement pledge to convert Air Passenger Duty into a plane tax. Osborne also crippled the Green Investment Bank from day one by not allowing it to lend before 2015, and then only if public spending is under control.(14)
Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, and his junior minister, Norman Baker, are obsessed by High Speed Two, despite the fact that there’s precious little evidence it will get people out of planes and into trains.(15) Apparently the Department of Transport hasn’t even included in its assessment the likely replacement of short haul slots at UK airports by long haul flights. Hammond is also thought to be considering a rise in the motorway speed limit to 80mph.(16)
The Green Deal – the great green hope of Energy Secretary Chris Huhne – is apparently stuck with 70+ civil servants struggling to make it work. At this stage it looks like it will be private companies cherrypicking a few well off customers who will install measures which make little or no difference.(17) Meanwhile the solar power industry is reeling from the Feed-in Tariff review, which scaled back planned subsidies and torpedoed the chance for schools to install solar panels; there’s no acceptance of the need to count, and be responsible for, our outsourced emissions to China and the rest of the world; and the Lib Dems’ principled commitment not to permit new nuclear power stations has been ripped to shreds.(18, 19, 20)
Is there a silver lining in all these dark clouds? Not much of one. We have only been able to find three unambiguously positive policies: 1) the commitment to no new coal-fired power stations without Carbon Capture and Storage; 2) a 10% cut in departmental emissions starting in 2010 (although Jonathan Porritt argues that this upset longer term emissions reduction plans that were already in place); and 3) incentives to purchase low and zero carbon vehicles.
Everything else which should be positive is clouded in uncertainty or negated by some other policy or lack of policy. The new carbon floor price will give old nuclear operators an outrageous windfall gain and the starting level is anyway set lower than the current carbon price in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme so the whole thing is pretty meaningless.(21) The coalition has said no to the building of extra capacity at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, but hasn’t ruled out expansion elsewhere. Councils are now allowed to sell electricity but the almost certain reduction in scope of the Feed-in Tariff means that they won’t be putting in photovoltaics any time soon.
Just over £1bn was promised in the recent Energy Bill for subsidies to renewables – about the same as we spend a year cleaning up old nuclear – but, according to a recent Pew Environment Group survey, investment in renewables in the UK fell from $11bn in 2009 to $3.3bn in 2010.(22) And an Ernst and Young survey of 529 UK-based companies showed confidence sharply down since the Comprehensive Spending Review with just 13% of respondents believing the coalition government would establish the conditions for success in the cleantech sector in 2011. That compared to a figure of 38% in a similar survey undertaken between August and October of 2010.(23)
The greenest government ever? Not even in your darkest dreams.
3) Lang, T. (2011). “Food and sustainability: getting land, labour and capital to line up.” Presentation to the Sustainable Development Commission’s Big Sustainability Summit, 1 March 2011.