05 Oct 2011, 16:42
Has there been a more anti-environmental political conference at any point over the past decade than this year's annual Conservative party jamboree in Manchester?
The answer is almost certainly not, and after a week of high-carbon policy announcements and sidelining of environmental issues, the hard-fought political consensus on the urgent need to create a world-leading, low-carbon economy seems under serious threat for the first time in a decade.
If you look at the handful of environmental announcements that have emerged in the past few days, it has provided explicit confirmation that large parts of the largest party in the coalition are not signed up to the UK's low-carbon agenda, are actively lobbying for it to be scaled back, and are in some cases tearing off in the opposite direction.
We've already covered the announcements of a proposed increase in speed limits, a return to weekly bin collections and, most importantly, George Osborne's commitment to ensure the UK's carbon targets do not exceed those adopted by Europe. But it is worth looking at them again.
Philip Hammond has driven a coach and horses through his department's low-carbon strategy, leaving some of his own officials in despair at a policy that could result in motorway emissions rising by 10 to 15 per cent. Eric Pickles has decided that having identified £250m of additional cash, his top priority is the return of weekly bin collections that have been shown to reduce recycling rates. And then there was George Osborne's litany of environmental misconceptions, arguably the most anti-environmental comments made by a leading British politician in years.
First there was the 'not us, guv' defence, with his claim that the UK only accounts for two per cent of global emissions, when research has consistently shown our emissions are closer to five or six per cent. Then there was the categorically false assertion that "we're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business". Is it not demonstrably the case that we're not going to save our businesses if we kill off our planet? And finally there was the clear challenge to the authority of his green-minded colleagues with an explicit commitment to cut the UK's carbon targets if the EU does not up its own goals.
The prime minister could have undone the undoubted damage meted on green investor confidence by his colleagues.
He may not have sufficient authority over the right wing of his party to overrule these anti-green policies altogether, but he could have explained how deeper cuts in emissions will be delivered elsewhere in the economy to compensate for the increase in emissions that will result from Hammond's fuel-burning speed limit. He could have outlined how new recycling schemes would help ensure that weekly bin collections do not undermine the progress on waste reduction made in recent years. And, most importantly, he could have offered green businesses reassurance that while measures will be put in place to stop carbon leakage, the legally binding long-term targets contained in the Climate Change Act are sacrosanct, regardless what the chancellor says.
Instead, he praised Osborne's "excellent speech", did not mention climate change once, and only mentioned green issues three times: to criticise Labour's record, insist planning reforms will not harm the environment, and declare that "green engineering" would form part of the Conservative's new economy.
Issues that Cameron once presented as an existential threat and a key component of his party's agenda are now little more than a footnote. In fact, judging by the rest of his speech they are less important than tired attacks on health and safety rules, or lame jokes about Ken Clarke's liberal tendencies.
Should green businesses be concerned by this clear sidelining of the low-carbon economy?
In the short term, it is unlikely to make much of a difference to a low-carbon sector that is continuing to grow at over four per cent while the rest of the UK economy flatlines.
It is frustrating to see political leaders no longer making climate change and low-carbon opportunities a key component of their speeches, but it is understandable that they are currently prioritising short-term social and economic concerns.
Meanwhile, the handful of anti-green Conservative policies announced this week may create infuriating inconsistencies across government, but they will do nothing to derail the much larger package of low-carbon measures designed to drive investment in green technologies and business models.
Electricity market reforms, the Green Investment Bank, the Green Deal and the Renewable Heat Incentive will all continue apace, creating huge commercial opportunities for low-carbon businesses and investors. Similarly, global climate change risks, surging investment in clean tech, and rising energy prices and supply insecurity will all continue regardless whether the prime minister chooses to mention climate change in his speeches. The fundamentals driving the low-carbon economy remain as robust as ever, and progressive businesses understand this implicitly.
However, at the same time it appears the political consensus that defined action to curb carbon emissions and tackle climate change is drawing to a close.
The Lib Dems obviously still regard green action as core to their identity and were at pains during their conference to highlight the environmental policies they are driving as part of the coalition. Labour were less explicit in their support for low-carbon businesses, but in Miliband's intriguing and high-risk speech detailing his desire to bring an end to corporate short termism in favour of a more progressive approach to doing business, the party is beginning to map out a pro-green strategy.
And yet while there are numerous honourable exceptions within the party (Greg Barker, Zac Goldsmith, William Hague, Tim Yeo), it has become clear this week that the Conservative leadership has decided green issues are no longer a vote-winner and are instead a handy sacrificial lamb to offer those on the right of the party who always thought the whole concept was a nonsense anyway.
This shift in strategy poses little threat to the low-carbon economy as long as the Lib Dems remain in the coalition. But it is possible to imagine a scenario where a full Conservative victory at the next election allows for the full expression of what Chris Huhne memorably described as the "Tea Party tendency" in the form of an assault on green policies.
Green business leaders need to be aware of this risk and should now urgently redouble efforts to protect what had previously looked like a solid political consensus on climate change. They need to make use of that business hotline the government promised would connect business leaders and ministers, and make the case loud and clear that rising emissions present both a grave threat and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver a low-carbon economy that drives both economic growth and rising living standards.
It is the kind of thing David Cameron used to say all the time – it is just a shame that at the time when we need green leadership most he has lost his voice.
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray