21 May 2012, 09:42
For months the UK's green business and NGO community took a rather perverse delight in asking when prime minister David Cameron would break his silence on environmental issues and deliver a meaningful speech on one of the few bright spots in the British economy and his government's genuinely ambitious low carbon plans.
Why does he not want to talk about a sector that is growing at around five per cent, we asked. Why does he refuse to publicly slap down his chancellor with his anti-green rhetoric? Is he really that scared of his climate-sceptic backbench MPs with their pathetic British Tea Party delusions?
Well, last month the prime minister partially answered those calls for a green speech, delivering a short but significant address to a group of clean energy ministers from around the world. It may have fallen well short of what many green campaigners wanted, but Cameron did declare his "passionate" belief in a future energy mix based largely on renewables and reiterated that the government was not about to U-turn on its flagship green policies.
Now there is plenty of evidence to suggest the coalition is not backing up its pro-green rhetoric with sufficient action, but with Nick Clegg also delivering a lengthy speech last month making the case for green growth, one fact is now indisputable: Ed Miliband is now the only leader of the three main parties not to have given a speech on the green economy over the last two years. In the interests of even-handedness, if nothing else, it is only fair to point this out.
In many ways, the silence is surprising. Miliband's credentials as an advocate of the green economy are pretty exemplary. He was the UK's first energy and climate change secretary and during his two years in the post he won praise from many within the green business and NGO community, while also securing the grudging respect of the energy industry. It is obviously common practice for politicians to lay claim to each others' achievements, but Miliband has a strong case for arguing that he laid the groundwork for many of the green policies the government is currently pursuing. Some of them were more effective than others (he has faced legitimate criticism for the inherent flaws in the feed-in tariff scheme), but he established a record of delivering real progress for the green economy, undoing at least some of the harm caused by Labour's decade of neglect towards the energy sector – neglect that left the UK near the bottom of the EU league table for renewable energy and facing the real prospect of power shortages in the latter half of this decade.
He also came of age politically at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, during which he played a critical role in saving the talks from collapse and, according to sources close to the negotiations, showed the kind of steely determination that became all too apparent a few years later when he beat his own brother to the Labour Party leadership.
He may have blotted his copybook with his reluctant support for a third runway at Heathrow, but he remains a surprisingly powerful speaker on the topic of climate change and the urgent need to drive the transition to a low carbon economy. Thoughtful and more eloquent than he often appears on TV, Miliband gave a series of impressive performances during 2009 and early 2010 when he urged people to support the government's efforts to establish the UK as a leading low carbon economy and began to sketch out the blueprint for a genuine green industrial strategy.
And yet, since he secured the leadership, Miliband has said little or nothing on the topic of climate change or green growth. His intriguing "producers versus predators" conference speech last year hinted at the concept of more sustainable business models, but failed to fully flesh out how a new form of capitalism can marry commercial success and innovation with environmental sustainability.
We may think we know where Miliband stands on green issues based on his record from two years ago. But there is no clear evidence as yet that he will make the green economy a central part of his pitch to the country, while there are as many unanswered questions about Labour's long-term plans for the sector as there are justified criticisms of the coalition's recent bungling and contradictory messages.
The shadow energy and climate change team led by Caroline Flint has been impressive in holding ministers to account over issues such as the feed-in tariff cuts fiasco and the continued uncertainty surrounding the Green Deal. But calls for the government to step up support for clean energy and the green economy at the same time as boosting efforts to tackle rising energy prices will only prove truly effective when the opposition maps out the policies it would use to simultaneously hold bills down while forcing investment up. As just one example, Miliband's support for emerging collective energy purchasing models is highly intriguing, but it is unclear how this approach can be married with the need for investment in greener energy.
Just as there is a strong centre-right narrative for the green economy – based on conservation of our shared environment, commercial success for innovative, cutting-edge companies, and market-based carbon pricing mechanisms to tackle market failures – that Cameron has failed to adequately articulate, there is also a (arguably even stronger) centre-left narrative based on effective regulation, green infrastructure investment, job creation and social equity that Miliband should be making.
It is obviously the prerogative of oppositions not to lay bare their policy plans too far ahead of a general election, but Miliband should still provide the green business community with a clearer steer on where he stands on the key issues affecting one the UK's unsung success stories.
Rightly or wrongly, greens are increasingly frustrated with the coalition and there is a genuine opportunity for the opposition to woo a new generation of progressive business leaders ahead of the next election. With John Cruddas now installed as the new head of the party's policy review, it is to be hoped that senior ministers recognise the opportunity and take full advantage of it – starting with a meaningful speech from Miliband on how he would support the green economy.
Such a speech would serve the dual purpose of reassuring business leaders that a Labour government would deliver on its vague talk of a green industrial policy, while also having an even more valuable short-term impact of forcing the coalition to up its own game on green issues.
In contrast, the continuation of Miliband's current silence on environmental issues risks people reaching the conclusion that the Labour leader, like the prime minister, has made the tragically short-termist decision to push the green economy on to the backburner.
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