30 Apr 2015, 12:36
In several important respects the result of next week's election is of little consequence to many of the UK's green businesses. The three main party leaders have all committed to prioritise climate action in the next parliament, and as a consequence the manifestos, while containing important differences, remain wedded to the continued decarbonisation of the UK economy.
Meanwhile, the big trends impacting the global clean tech sector - plummeting low carbon energy costs, fast-expanding green vehicle markets, multinationals' pursuit of sustainable business models, the prospects for an international climate deal - will pay Friday's results little heed. The varied likes of IKEA, Apple, Unilever, ArcelorMittal, and HSBC, are not about to tear up their global sustainability strategies based on whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband makes it to Number 10, just as the clean tech start-ups of Old Street and Cambridge and the ‘Northern Powerhouse' and ‘Silicon Glen' are not about to shut up shop if their preferred candidate loses. The White House and the Chinese Politburo will be similarly indifferent to a result that will have no impact on their wide-ranging climate strategies.
And yet, at the same time this is an election that could still prove hugely consequential to the UK's green economy and the levels of confidence and investment flowing into its potentially transformative clean tech sector.
As I argued previously, it is perfectly plausible the next parliament will usher in a golden age for the green economy as decarbonisation really steps up a gear and the next government introduces a wave of policies designed to accelerate green infrastructure investment.
However, it is also plausible an anti-renewable energy government battling to avoid a lost decade, distracted by an EU referendum and a constitutional crisis north of the border, reliant on climate sceptic backbenchers to maintain a majority, and led by a prime minister who is nakedly hostile to the idea of the UK leading the world in tackling climate change, will push the green economy to the bottom of a very long list of priorities.
Consequently, who forms the next government really matters for green businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs. The challenge now is translating this realisation into a decision on who to vote for, when each of the parties have their own distinct mix of strengths and weaknesses - with the exception of UKIP, obviously, where the strengths from an environmental perspective are all but impossible to determine.
The first point to make in any assessment of who to vote for is not a referendum on a single issue. This is particularly apparent for green businesses who often marry broad corporate concerns with specific environmental concerns. Mirroring those Tory-leaning business leaders who are fearful about the destabilising effect of an EU referendum, it is possible many green business entrepreneurs will simultaneously despair of Conservative wind energy policies but be won over by the prospect of lower taxes and a more aggressive deficit reduction plan.
Equally, the green economy is not a homogenous whole, regardless of how often certain former Environment Secretary's attempt to force the phrase "green blob" into the political lexicon. Energy companies with substantial renewable energy interests may warm to Labour's plans for a decarbonisation target, while being put off by its talk of a price freeze. Green car firms may be impressed by the coalition's record on electric vehicles, even as solar farm developers revel the opportunity to punish Ministers at the ballot box over their management of the sectors' boom and bust cycle.
The second crucial point to remember is that the on-going iniquities of our electoral system mean the only logical response to the question ‘who should I vote for?' is ‘where do you live?'
There are those who believe that failing to vote with your conscience is some form of democratic betrayal, but the real democratic betrayal is a system that forces people to calculate whether the satisfaction of voting for a preferred candidate who is destined to lose outweighs the frustration of seeing a candidate diametrically opposed to their values elected with little opposition.
A green-minded voter in a UKIP target seat may conclude their vote is best used backing whoever is best-placed to block the march of the English Breakfast Tea Party and its climate reckless policies. Similarly, some centrist voters in Brighton Pavilion may make a calculation similar to those celebrities who signalled their support for Caroline Lucas as an essential parliamentary voice while declining to specifically endorse the Green Party's policies.
But, all other things being equal, which of the parties offers the best prospectus for the green economy and the million or so people it now employs?
In a series of blog posts over the next few days I'll be looking at the green business pitch offered by each of the main parties and how the election may play out for the green economy in the event of these various prospectuses holding some sway in the next parliament. I'll be starting today with the Greens and their fellow anti-austerity travellers the SNP and Plaid Cymru, followed by the Lib Dems, Conservatives and Labour.
With the polls as tight as ever in this most unpredictable of elections and the final result likely to rest on both the outcome in a handful of desperately close marginal seats and the vagaries of coalition negotiations it is currently impossible to predict with any confidence whether this election will deliver a golden age for the UK green economy or five years when this previously buoyant sector is forced to fight for its survival. The worry for many of those working for green businesses is that at this late stage both extreme scenarios remain plausible. As such, with just a few days to go, only one thing is clear: every vote matters.
24 Apr 2015, 11:25
There is a school of thought among climate change campaigners that argues that as storms, floods, droughts and wildfires hit with increasing frequency and intensity, the scientists and meteorologists who are wheeled into the TV studios to answer questions about whether climate change is to 'blame' need a new approach. Instead of opening their response with the technically accurate but inadvertently reassuring disclaimer about how 'no single event can be attributed to climate change' as is the case now, they should declare that 'this is what climate change looks like - this is precisely the kind of extreme event we expect to see happen more often and with more intensity'. Both lines are technically accurate and both should be included in any response, but by opening with a clear reminder of how climate warnings are increasingly being borne out the urgency of the challenge becomes much clearer.
I was reminded of this climate communications debate while watching the news last night with its latest heart-breaking reports from the Mediterranean on the countless hundreds, perhaps thousands, who have died in the past few weeks. For this is what climate crisis looks like - this is precisely the kind of extreme event climate security analysts from the Pentagon to the MoD to the world's top insurance firms expect to see happen more often and with more intensity.
Now, of course, the disclaimers and caveats are still extremely important. The tragedy of people smugglers exploiting the desperation of some of the world's most vulnerable communities and sending men, women, and children to their deaths, while governments trapped between narrow political pressures and basic humanitarian impulses fail to work out how best to respond is not a direct result of climate change, in much the same way that no single typhoon is a direct result of rising global temperatures.
Sectarian tensions, corrupt governments, terrorism, the EU's scaling back of search operations, and, despite all the disgracefully confected outrage over Ed Miliband's foreign policy speech today, the tendency of Western governments to engage in conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East without any serious plan for the post-conflict period have all played their role in fuelling the current crisis.
But there are other macro-trends at play here that are driving thousands of people to risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean, of which climate change is undoubtedly one.
We know that states tend to fail when they cannot feed themselves. We know that climate change increases the risk of disruption to food supplies in a region. We know that numerous societies throughout history have collapsed due to their failure to adapt to environmental change. We know that in 2007 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the war in Darfur as the world's first climate change conflict. We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices. We know recent research has suggested climate change played a role in sparking the Syrian War that in turn has played such a big role in fuelling both the rise of ISIS and the humanitarian crisis off Europe's southern coast.
Most of all though, we know that even if climate change is not the primary factor behind the current tragedy this humanitarian disaster and the seemingly intractable geopolitical challenges, nationalist tendencies, and crushing grief it invokes is precisely the kind of disaster security analysts expect to see worsen in a world afflicted by escalating climate change.
When the world's political and business leaders gather in Paris later this year to discuss the urgent need to slash global greenhouse gas emissions and enhance climate resilience they will be motivated by the compelling financial reasons for averting dangerous climate change and shifting to a greener and healthier global economy. But there is another reason. Without a rapid and successful global effort to tackle this existential threat the heart-breaking scenes of the past week and the sadness and rancour they unleash will only become more commonplace. After all, this is what climate crisis really means.
21 Apr 2015, 16:02
After the disappointment of yesterday's BBC Daily Politics election debate on energy and climate change, which prompted RTCC's Ed King to today observe that "voters - and future generations at risk from climate change - deserve better", numerous questions remain unanswered.
Here are 16 of them. I've no doubt missed a few important ones and you'll have your own pressing questions that you would like answered. I also have numerous questions I'd love to ask UKIP's Roger Helmer and the Greens' Andrew Cooper, but those are for another day.
These are the questions I wish Andrew Neil had asked those on the panel most likely to have a crucial energy and climate role in the next government:
To Matt Hancock:
1. You won't support a 2030 power decarbonisation target - where do you think lower cost emissions cuts will come from>
2. If you want decarbonisation at lowest cost, why are you ruling out more onshore wind farms?
3. If 'onshore windfarms often fail to win public support' as your manifesto claims why do polls show circa 70 per cent support?
4. If onshore wind farms are unable by themselves to provide the 'firm capacity' the grid needs, why are you supporting offshore wind farms?
5. If you think Labour's decarbonisation target will add £96 to bills, how much will your emissions reduction plan add to bills?
6. Would you dilute action on climate change to secure UKIP support for a minority Conservative government?
To Caroline Flint:
7. Is runway expansion compatible with UK climate goals?
8. Do you accept Tory warnings a decarbonisation target will push up energy bills?
9. Would you sign up to more ambitious UK carbon targets to secure SNP support for a minority Labour government?
To Ed Davey:
10. Is a strong 5th carbon budget and decarbonisation target a non-negotiable in any future coalition involving the Lib Dems?
11. Is continued support for onshore wind a non-negotiable in any future coalition involving the Lib Dems?
To Hancock, Flint and Davey:
12. What is your stance on the carbon bubble hypothesis? Do you agree we have to keep it in the ground?
13. What is your stance on Arctic drilling?
14. What will happen to the Levy Control Framework and CfD clean energy support system post 2020?
15. Where do you stand on the fifth carbon budget?
16. How will promised spending cuts impact DECC and Defra?
I'd argue the three main parties should be able and willing to answer all of these questions before, rather than after, the election. Judging by the confusing mess that was the debate on energy and climate policy I remain doubtful these straightforward questions will be answered any time soon.
16 Apr 2015, 10:55
Yes, the question posed in the headline to this blog is wilfully provocative. It sure doesn't feel like a green golden age is just around the corner, does it?
Few things engender cynicism quite like an election campaign, and this one is anything but an exception to that rule. Characters have been assassinated, spending pledges have been left unfunded, dog whistles have been blown, journalists have been heckled, semantics have been abused, and the electorate have been treated with that unique mix of fear, condescension and contempt which our post-expenses scandal political class appear to have perfected. Worst of all for green businesses and investors, the urgent need to transform our economy is being largely ignored by both the main political parties and the mainstream media.
And yet yesterday I realised something genuinely inspirational could still be found in this most dispiriting of election campaigns, if you just know where to look. And where is this much-needed optimism to be found? In the unlikeliest of places for anyone seeking political inspiration: the Liberal Democrat manifesto.
The Lib Dems may currently be about as popular as a fracking well on the village green, with the latest polls seeing them plumb near subterranean levels of support and speculation mounting that Nick Clegg could lose his seat. But with those same polls pointing to a hung parliament it would be unwise to bet against the junior coalition party just yet. And that is why the Lib Dem manifesto and the genuinely bold green proposals it contains matter.
For all his myriad faults, the Liberal Democrat manifesto suggests it is Clegg, rather than David Cameron and Ed Miliband, who has the firmest grasp on the key lessons of coalition government. By setting out his five priorities voters get a clear sense of the policies the party would cling hardest to in any post-election negotiations. By putting forward a mixture of pragmatic and occasionally bold green policies the party has a strong position from which to start negotiations. The party may once again be positioning itself to be labelled the worst traitor since Judas, but like it or not this is how grown-up coalition politics work.
The breadth of environmental policies being put forward would give the party bargaining chips - could opposition to airport expansion be dropped in return for a power sector decarbonisation target? Could an office for environmental responsibility be quietly shelved for a clear commitment to a Nature Law? Meanwhile, the ambition contained in targets for phasing out unabated coal, delivering ultra-low carbon vehicles, or drastically increasing recycling rates means significant progress can still be achieved even if the stated goals are diluted slightly in the inevitable give and take of coalition talks.
However, the most encouraging aspect of the Lib Dem manifesto is how little may have to be watered down in the event of a coalition. In fact, this green prospectus may end up being strengthened further.
The reality is the Lib Dem prospectus is nothing more or less than a natural extension of the Climate Change Act and the global requirement to decarbonise our economies. The picture the Lib Dems create of a low carbon economy where, in just 15 years' time, our power is carbon free, our coal and gas pollution is captured, our buses and taxis are powered by electricity or hydrogen, the vast majority of our materials are recycled, our infrastructure is climate resilient, and our natural world is in much-needed recovery is the picture that will inexorably result if the UK honours its climate pledges.
That is why the proposals put forward by the Lib Dems are, for all their cosmetic differences, broadly in line with Labour's similarly encouraging energy and climate change commitments. The two parties may be divided over Labour's energy price freeze and precisely how the UK's faltering energy efficiency strategy should be strengthened, they may end up divided over new runways, but these disagreements do not feel insurmountable.
When it comes to the green economy Labour and the Lib Dems may offer nominally different approaches, but their end goal is the same: a vibrant, clean and successful decarbonised economy capable of delivering the biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution. If the electoral maths allows it, it should be possible for the two parties to finesse a truly ambitious agreement on climate and energy policy, even if they remain at loggerheads on other issues. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens could similarly endorse much of this agenda and may well demand even more support for clean energy and greener neighbourhoods.
And what of David Cameron and the Conservatives? This is where the energy and climate component of the election gets really interesting, because there is plenty in the Lib Dem and Labour prospectuses the Tories should be able to endorse. Earlier this week I argued the energy, climate and environment sections of the Conservative manifesto were disgracefully vague and disappointingly unambitious. That remains the case, but central to their strategy is continued support for the Climate Change Act, from which more detailed policies on clean energy, clean transport and clean air are legally obliged to follow. There is little doubt that in any coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems the Tories would seek to ditch some of Clegg's bolder green pledges, but arguing against better energy efficiency policies or continued decarbonisation would look utterly hypocritical given Cameron's stated support for climate action.
Moreover, the Conservative failure to prioritise green issues in its manifesto gives Clegg leverage. Would the Tories really block green reforms that its manifesto largely supports in principle if not in practice, if in return Clegg offered his support for an EU referendum?
For all the policy uncertainty that an election inevitably leads to, the most likely outcome remains a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition government that would remain fully committed to decarbonisation and increased investment in clean technologies and infrastructure. It seems clear a Labour-led coalition would seek a slightly faster pace of decarbonisation, but it is possible to envisage a Tory-led coalition where the investment climate for green firms remains broadly attractive.
Of course, this is a Panglossian assessment of the current state of play. Cynicism still has an important and valuable role to play in any election campaign. Would a Conservative majority government or an administration propped up by the climate sceptics at UKIP really deliver the low carbon policies the Climate Change Act demands? Can Clegg be trusted to deliver on his green priorities? As several wags have pointed out, the Nick Clegg who is putting forward these ambitious plans should have a word with the Nick Clegg who has been in government for five years. Would a Labour-led coalition of centre left parties be stable enough to deliver a five year green industrial strategy? Why will no one clearly explain how a new wave of spending cuts will impact green government departments and services? Why are all of the main parties singularly failing to address the inherent contradiction between their support for a decarbonised Britain and their support for the North Sea drilling, Home Counties fracking, runway building pollutocracy?
All these questions are valid and some of them will no doubt end up resulting in the kind of depressing answers that justify our cynicism. Moreover, the parties are not, as some cynics argue, all the same, on environmental or many other issues. There is a chasm of difference between the UKIP friendly wing of the Conservative party and the green leading wing of the Labour party, while there are clear policy disagreements to be found on energy efficiency, wind farms, decarbonisation targets, and the clean energy mix.
However, the inspirational and historic 15 to 30 year green transformation of our economy promised by the Lib Dem, Labour, and to a lesser extent Tory manifestos could yet emerge from this most narrow and dispiriting of election campaigns. It might not seem like it at the moment, but the combination of global economic, technology and political trends means that golden age could really be just around the corner. And Clegg, Miliband, and Cameron could yet help deliver it.
14 Apr 2015, 16:52
It is one of the golden rules of green business and campaigning - try to ensure the low carbon economy does not become a partisan party political issue. But boy is the Conservative Party making it hard not to break this particular lobbying rubric at the moment.
Today's Tory manifesto offers little for one of the most important and fast expanding parts of the economy, aims open hostility at one of the country's most popular forms of clean energy, and provides only staggeringly vague and at times contradictory policy signals on how the UK will undergo the massive economic transition it has signed up to. And all this from a party led by a man who has repeatedly declared climate change to be one of the most serious challenges we face.
The logic behind protecting the political consensus on the need for climate action is obvious. Climate change is not a 'right' or 'left' issue, it is too important to be confined to one political tradition and besides many of the most effective responses to climate risks incorporate thinking from both sides of the political divide. Allowing climate action to become synonymous with the left is a recipe for policy instability and a stop-start approach to decarbonisation as governments inevitably rise and fall.
Consequently, one of the most important breakthroughs the UK's green community has made in recent years was the commitment Green Alliance wrestled from each of the three main party leaders to prioritise action on climate change in the next parliament regardless of who forms the next government.
But if this political consensus is to deliver anything in terms of tangible progress for the green economy the UK's leading political parties have an obligation to not just honour the letter of their climate commitment, they also have to provide some evidence they have a coherent plan capable of delivering the large scale transformation of our energy, industrial, and transport sectors that is required.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats just about clear this bar. Their energy and climate strategies contain plenty of elements that green businesses will disagree with and there is little doubt climate hawks would like to see a more ambition on a range of issues. But their commitments to decarbonise the power sector and beef up energy efficiency measures, coupled with party-wide support for the Climate Change Act and a greener industrial strategy demonstrate to voters they are serious about decarbonisation and hold out the promise of investor certainty for green businesses.
In contrast, the Conservative Party manifesto and the reluctance of any of the party's leading figures to talk publicly about climate change and clean energy during the election campaign offers no such reassurance. The sections on energy, climate change, and the environment are so lacking in detail and ambition that you get the impression the authors spent so long fixated on their "long term economic, security, hardworking families, NHS, welfare, Miliband is a ruthless bastard/pathetic weirdo plan" that they simply cobbled together something on doing "even more" on air pollution and "keeping bills as low as possible" and hoped voters wouldn't ask too many questions. They might well get away with it.
Manifestos are notorious for vague promises, all parties do it. But the Tories confusing combination of hymning low cost green energy at the same time as blocking onshore wind farms, and offering promises on energy efficiency, air pollution, flood protection, and clean tech funding that are backed by near zero detail demonstrates something close to contempt for those voters who care about these issues.
In fairness, the manifesto is not entirely lacking in encouraging signals for green businesses and campaigners. The re-statement of the Conservative's commitment to the Climate Change Act and continued decarbonisation is not to sniffed at given some Tory MPs would love to scrap the UK's emissions targets. Similarly, the manifesto is right to highlight how the Conservatives, in partnership with the Lib Dems, have delivered some notable green achievements in the form of the Green Investment Bank, a significant increase in renewable energy capacity, and the formation of a world-leading offshore wind industry. The promise of more funding for electric cars and rail, the introduction of a new marine conservation Blue Belt, and the prospect of a new biodiversity strategy are all to be welcomed.
But even in highlighting its supposed green achievements the Conservatives inadvertently demonstrate how this apparently competent government has failed to deliver on many of its green promises. A deal might have been signed for Hinkley Point, but there is still no decision on whether it will be built. Up to £1bn may have been committed to carbon capture, but after a full five year parliament none of it has been assigned. The final decision on the Swansea Bay Tidal project that the manifesto touts as evidence of Tory success will be left to the next government. The Conservatives may have overseen the "birth" of a new industry in the form of UK shale gas, but this nascent sector has been so mismanaged that we are still a long way from both delivering commercial operations and convincing people that the industry really is compatible with a low carbon Britain.
The manifesto's relatively small number of forward-looking policies invites similar scepticism. Take the commitment on flood defence spending. "We will now go further, building 1,400 new flood defence schemes, to protect 300,000 homes," the manifesto states. But while it details how £3bn was spent in the last parliament on flood defences there is no clear figure for future spending.
Similarly, the manifesto promises to "support low-cost measures on energy efficiency, with the goal of insulating a million more homes over the next five years, supporting our commitment to tackle fuel poverty". But there is no information on how this goal would be met and as the Energy Bill Revolution campaign group pointed out this afternoon one million homes is a massive reduction on the five million homes thought to have received some form of energy efficiency upgrade in the past parliament. We are left to assume a Conservative government would simply continue with current energy efficiency policies - policies that have been roundly slammed by businesses and fuel poverty groups.
Numerous legitimate questions go unanswered, glossed over by a manifesto that fails to provide the clarity green business leaders had been hoping for. Do the Conservatives still support granting the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers? How much funding will be made available to "promising new renewable technologies and research", and who decides what constitutes "promising"? Does the commitment to "not support additional distorting and expensive power sector targets" rule out the decarbonisation target for the power sector that the Committee on Climate Change has recommended? Has the party got anything at all to say about waste, resource efficiency and recycling? I'm hoping to hear back from CCHQ on these various questions, as the manifesto offers no answers.
Similar questions could no doubt be fired at Labour and the Lib Dems, but the lack of clarity from a party running on a platform built on competence, credibility, business opportunity, and security is remarkable.
And then there is the pledge to halt the expansion of onshore wind farms. The one policy that is backed by a degree of detail and simultaneously the one that appears to have been the least thought through. If a party wants to effectively bring an end to onshore wind farms due to their visual impact in a bid to appeal to a particular constituency, that is their business. But in attempting to rationalise an end to subsidies for new wind farms by claiming they "often fail to win public support... and are unable by themselves to provide the firm capacity that a stable energy system requires" the Conservatives have first made themselves look ridiculous and then compounded this ridiculousness by repeatedly insisting their energy strategy is governed by a pursuit of the most cost-effective clean energy.
As numerous commentators have rushed to point out, onshore wind farms command two-third public support, provide no more or less of a challenge to grid operators than offshore wind farms or solar arrays, and deliver clean energy at a cost that is lower than virtually every other option. As a trade association for the wind industry, RenewableUK may have a vested interest, but it is right to describe the Tory policy on wind farms as "breathtakingly illogical and therefore idiotic".
There remain climate hawks in the Conservative ranks, impressive centre right thinkers who know it is essential the party presents a credible decarbonisation strategy. There are sources who insist the Prime Minister is numbered among them. But none of these people is adequately represented in this narrow, uninspiring, and confusing manifesto.
It is to be hoped a Conservative government would follow the logic inherent in its commitment to the Climate Change Act and deliver a much more ambitious green strategy than that offered in this thin prospectus. Because what we have currently is a manifesto that at its best offers a continuation of clean energy and efficiency policies that have proven to be moderately effective but have failed to deliver the large scale transformations that are required. And at its worst provides vague, ill thought out policies that threaten the health of industries the Conservatives once promised to champion.
The Tory manifesto is the result of a party leadership too scared of its own backbenchers and UKIP climate scepticism to offer the kind of green economic vision the UK desperately needs and too disrespectful to voters to provide them with a clear explanation of how a Conservative government would address these most important of issues. The UK's cross-party political consensus on the need for climate action remains, but it is looking more frayed than ever. Expect more and more green businesses and campaigners to stick their heads above the parapet and demand better from a Conservative Party that is risking its credibility on energy and environmental issues with this contradictory, cautious and incoherent set of policies.
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray