Green Deal critics offer nothing but impotent sound and fury

Recent attacks on green policies are as vocal as they are meaningless, businesses would be wise to ignore them

16 Apr 2012, 14:21

As Bob Dylan once observed in a slightly different context, "they say the darkest hour is right before the dawn".

It is an axiom green businesses and NGOs would do well to keep in mind as they once again deal with the frustration of seeing misleading data used by right-wing MPs and their allies in the press to attack environmentally and economically sensible green policies.

The last few weeks have seen an undoubted intensification in the political and media attacks against the government's green agenda.

The Daily Mail has again led the charge, running a series of utterly nonsensical stories that take peer-reviewed climate change studies and draw climate sceptic conclusions that are diametrically opposed to those reached by the scientists who actually did the research and wrote the reports.

It has followed this scientific illiteracy with some staggering policy illiteracy in the form of an orchestrated attack on the government's imminent Green Deal scheme based on its "revelation" that the government is planning a "conservatory tax" that will force those undertaking extensions to spend £10,000 improving the energy efficiency of their home.

Ignoring the fact the Mail report was so littered with errors as to be laughable (the rules in question do not cover conservatories, they do not constitute a tax, most required improvements will not cost £10,000, the improvements will be available at no upfront cost and will save people money on energy bills) and the fact the Green Deal is in the Coalition agreement, right-wing Conservative MPs piled in over the weekend, with Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps letting the Telegraph know they wanted to see the whole scheme "killed off".

Not wanting to feel left out, the Sunday Times continued its unofficial war on wind farms by sticking a ridiculous headline on a completely reasonable interview with Climate Minister Greg Barker that saw the paper suggest there would be "no more wind farms" – a headline that Barker took to Twitter to denounce as "spurious".

I'll leave it to those more qualified to document the various errors, half-truths, manipulations, and outright lies contained in this wave of stories (if you are interested check out the excellent Carbon Brief blog that does a great job of tracking and correcting the press' worst climate sceptic and anti-green excesses), and instead focus on the question of why these attacks are intensifying and what their implications might be.

The question of timing is highly significant and should, if anything, give succour to green businesses.

In the short term the current flurry of stories is the result of the short Easter "silly season" that typically occurs whenever Westminster is on its hols, and the imminent first speech from David Cameron on the green economy, which is slated to take place later this month.

But more broadly the latest wave of stories are simply the continuation of an anti-green narrative that began to intensify with the formation of the Coalition and has been on a steady upward curve of outrage ever since.

The reason for this escalation is simple: those seeking to deny the green economy are losing. Each ratcheting up of the anti-green policy rhetoric is the result of the continued progress of those self-same policies, just as each desperate attempt to undermine climate science is driven by the continued strengthening of our understanding of manmade global warming.

Those attempting to block the development of the green economy are howling at the moon. To quote another great poet, again in a somewhat different context, "it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

The reason the attacks on flagship green policies such as the Green Deal and renewable energy subsidies are becoming ever more vocal is because the window of opportunity for shaping these policies is closing fast.

As we have argued several times in the past, the Coalition's green strategy can be divided in to two phases that match neatly with the two halves of the parliament: a policy delivery phase and then a physical delivery phase.

Barring U-turns of such scale and significance that they would threaten the very existence of the Coalition, by this time next year the government will have put in place the Green Deal, the Renewable Heat Incentive, a reformed feed-in tariff incentive, a reformed Renewables Obligation regime, a competition to fund carbon capture and storage, the Green Investment Bank, a carbon floor price, a reformed carbon tax regime based on the carbon Reduction Commitment or an alternative levy, and extensive reforms to the electricity market that will drive investment in low carbon energy. Yes, many of these measures are still not ambitious enough, and yes, some of them will probably falter along the way. But overall these policies represent pretty solid foundations for the continued growth of the green economy.

Those ministers, MPs, think-tanks, and newspapers who because of either climate scepticism or a perverse Tea Party-inspired desire to politicise environmental issues know these policies are coming and know that they will be extremely difficult to reverse once they are in place – hence the increasingly desperate last-ditch attempts to block or undermine them.

If the successful march of environmental policies explains the timing of the latest wave of anti-green stories, what are the implications attached to these attacks, particularly given they are only going to escalate further over the summer?

Here the picture is more mixed for green businesses. As has been well-documented there is ample evidence that anti-green rhetoric has led to delays to low carbon investments.

Firms considering locating wind turbine factories in the UK are still yet to make final decisions, in part because they were spooked by negative rhetoric from the Chancellor; a number of high profile energy firms and retailers were notable absentees from the initial list of companies supporting the Green Deal with media attacks on the scheme no doubt playing a part in their decision to wait and see how it plays out; and solar investment has fallen through the floor as a result of ill thought out changes to the feed-in tariff scheme driven in part by vocal critics of the incentive mechanism.

The Conservative MPs and ministers driving many of these attacks on green policies should hang their heads over the negative effects they are having on one of the few growth areas of the economy. They can bleat about their desire to protect hard-pressed families from rising costs all they like, if they actually looked at the detail they would realise these measures will have a negligible impact on energy bills (and a significant positive impact is fossil fuel prices continue to rise), while initiatives such as the Green Deal will help reduce many people's bills.

Thankfully, the likelihood is that once the full array of green policies is in place anti-green attacks will lose much of their sting. Businesses will then be able to look at the legislation rather than the rhetoric, the action rather than the words, and make their green investment decisions accordingly.

The only way anti-green rhetoric will again become relevant is if the next election results in an outright Conservative victory where the balance of power falls in to the hands of the growing cabal of Tea Party-lite MPs. Failing that, attacks on the green economy and the policies that help deliver it will remain little more than impotent posturing. The course is fixed by the continuing green political consensus, the Climate Change Act, and most importantly the emergence of low carbon technologies and business models that make more sense than the current systems they replace, regardless of the policy environment.

Savvy businesses understand these realities, and, as today's short list for the BusinessGreen Leaders Awards makes plain, are embracing ambitious environmental improvements with scant regard for meaningless political spats in the Westminster village.

The times, so to speak, are a-changing.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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