The good, bad and ugly for the green economy after 14 years of Conservative government

James Murray
clock • 15 min read
The good, bad and ugly for the green economy after 14 years of Conservative government

The Conservative government has been better for the green economy than its many critics will accept, which makes the failures and scandals of the past decade even more frustrating

There's not a lot of love for the Conservative Party amongst green-minded voters at the moment. Polls suggest the Party could be on track for one of its worst electoral performances in history. Fewer than one in 10 people under 50 are considering voting Tory. Green groups have just rated the Party's manifesto as the worst on environmental issues by a huge margin, assuming you ignore the climate denialist ramblings from Nigel Farage's Reform. And even some former Conservative Ministers are saying they will vote for Labour in protest at Rishi Sunak's repeated attacks on climate policies.  

The government has only itself to blame. You cannot oversee more than a decade of flat-lining real wages, stagnating living standards, and deteriorating public services and expect to defer an electoral reckoning forever. Five years of indulgent in-fighting and a campaign of countless gaffes and ill-conceived populist posturing the Party has turned what would have been an uphill battle under any circumstances into a likely landslide defeat. 

The environment has been an oft-ignored, but constantly present underlying theme for the government's mis-firing campaign. Sunak has repeatedly criticised his own decarbonisation policies, failed to get to grips with the sewage crisis, and wilfully ignored polls showing majorities of voters across all demographics want to see bolder climate action. The Conservatives' carefully nurtured reputation for environmental responsibility has been hugely tarnished, the work of David Cameron's long-forgotten detoxification project buried by a doomed attempt to court a handful of Farageist climate sceptics. 

But the blanket condemnation of the Conservative government from green groups risks mischaracterising a record that is much more nuanced than its critics acknowledge. To borrow a phrase, the green economy has experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly under 14 years of Conservative government. And whoever forms the next government on July 4th would be wise to consider both the successes they can build upon, as well as the failures they urgently need to correct. 

The good

The good green policy decisions are more numerous than observers realise. It is true, as Ministers often stress when making a half-hearted attempt to defend their record, that the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G20 nation in recent decades. Emissions have more than halved since 1990 and as Carbon Brief reported recently, UK emissions are at their lowest level since 1879. Progress has been slightly less impressive since 2015, with some studies suggesting Germany has decarbonised fastest among the G20 nations since the signing of the Paris Agreement. But the UK is still firmly among the leading pack of decarbonising economies. Every Carbon Budget to date has been hit. The Lib Dems will argue they deserve a share of the plaudits for laying the foundations for this progress during the coalition years. But the Conservative government arguably deserves more credit than it has been getting.

The UK's relatively rapid decarbonisation was delivered through a mix of multi-billion dollar investments, technological innovation, effective policy interventions, and political signals that were often inconsistent, but tended to ultimately push in the right direction.

Ever since Cameron hugged his first husky, the Conservative leadership has supported the UK's world-leading Climate Change Act and has publicly backed the idea that you can decarbonise an industrial economy while sustaining economic growth and improving living standards. Theresa May became the first leader of a major economy to put a net zero target in law. Boris Johnson hosted the COP26 Climate Summit and repeatedly promoted clean technology as central to his levelling-up agenda. The less said about Liz Truss the better, but she promised to ease planning barriers for wind farms and commissioned a review of the UK's net zero plans that concluded decarbonisation should accelerate. Rishi Sunak may have characterised the net zero transition as a cost to be minimised, but he has never resiled from the UK's legally binding climate targets and one of his last decisions before calling the election was to confirm he would not dilute the next Carbon Budget by carrying forward surplus emissions savings.

This underlying stability has partially offset the political chaos of the past decade, helping to provide green businesses with the confidence to invest and innovate. Consequently, the green economy grew by nine per cent last year and was worth £74bn, even as the rest of the economy flatlined.

The Conservative government has also delivered multiple green policy successes. For example, George Osborne was no friend of climate action, but his carbon price floor helped push coal power off the grid in little more than a decade. In 2010 coal accounted for around a third of the UK's power mix. Last year, it commanded a one per cent share. The last UK coal power plant will close within months, providing an historic milestone for the rest of the world to emulate.

At the same time, the contract for difference regime triggered a surge in offshore wind development, providing the UK with a genuinely world-leading industry that has helped slash emissions while having a pretty minimal impact on energy costs. The UK's nuclear programme is much more controversial, but the Conservative government has managed to get shovels in the ground to build the first new nuclear reactor in generations. A pipeline of additional nuclear power plants and carbon capture and hydrogen projects is on the way. All told, clean power accounted for 56 per cent of the UK's electricity mix last year, with fossil fuels accounting for just 33 per cent. Whether it is delivered by 2030 or 2035, a fully decarbonised power system is now entirely plausible, and that is in large part thanks to decisions made since 2010.

Progress in other areas of the green economy has been less consistent, but there have been some notable achievements. Electric vehicles' 17 per cent market share in the UK lags far behind that of world leaders such as Norway and China, but it means Britain is well placed in the chasing pack. Boiler standards have quietly saved households money and emissions, and after years of delays more demanding green building standards and increased heat pump grants are starting to have an effect. Nearly 50 per cent of homes in England now have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of C or above, up from just 14 per cent in 2010. The innovation budget has been largely protected from austerity cuts and helped enable a remarkably vibrant ecosystem of climate tech start-ups. Various reporting standards and carbon taxes, including the rapid adoption of a post-Brexit UK Emissions Trading Scheme, have helped embed decarbonisation in corporate boardrooms. Green reforms to farming subsidies could one day emerge as one of the few unalloyed positives to result from the UK's departure from the EU.

On the international stage, the UK was a key player in the High Ambition Coalition that helped deliver the Paris Agreement, staged a genuinely successful COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, and has mobilised billions of pounds in climate finance for developing economies.

All of these moves formed part of a global trend, which has seen the clean energy transition accelerate rapidly in all of the world's biggest and most influential economies. But at a time when global climate action is gathering pace and countries are rushing to turbocharge their decarbonisation efforts, the UK is home to some of the world's most exciting green businesses, hosts some of its premier financial and research institutions, and has cut emissions faster and deeper than many of its peers.

But if the Conservative government clearly got some things right, it also got a lot of things wrong.

The bad

Few incidents sum up the inconsistencies and frustrations evident in the government's climate strategy better than David Cameron's notorious 2013 decision to ‘cut the green crap'. Under pressure following an increase in energy bills (to levels that were far below where they are now), Cameron authorised steep cuts to the energy efficiency and renewables schemes that were funded by some of the green levies on energy bills. It was a decision that neatly combined the short termism, under-investment, and cynical politicking that has done so much damage to both the economy and the public sphere over the past 14 years.

The results were predictable and predicted. Insulation installation rates fell through the floor, solar panel roll outs stalled, and the modest energy bill savings that resulted were soon be swallowed up by soaring fossil gas prices. According to a regularly updated analysis from Carbon Brief, the green crap package of reforms has landed the UK economy with costs totalling £22bn thanks to the increased reliance on gas imports that was the inevitable consequence of Cameron's short-sightedness. Cameron dismissed criticism of the move with precisely the same cavalier insouciance that came to characterise his handling of the Brexit referendum.

This pattern has been repeated time and again, as narrow party political concerns, ideological obsessions, or vested interests have been allowed to take precedence over the long term policies and investments that are critical to delivering on the UK's climate targets, bolstering its energy security, and maintaining its economic competitiveness.

There was the de facto ban on new onshore wind farms in England, which remained in place even as the UK faced a full-blown energy security crisis. The repeated inability to fix a planning system and grid connection regime that is demonstrably unfit for purpose. The failure to secure any bids from offshore wind developers in the most recent clean power contract auction.

There was the flawed launch and subsequent axing of both the Green Deal financing scheme and the Green Homes Grant programme. The years of delays to greener building standards for new homes and the dropping of energy efficiency standards for cold and damp rented homes. The chronic underfunding of insulation programmes and the recent watering down of the Clean Heat Market Mechanism.

There was the sale of the state-owned Green Investment Bank, only to launch a state-owned National Infrastructure Bank a few years later. The shelving of nuclear projects in Wales and Gloucestershire, only to have to spend £160m buying back the sites. The scrapping of the UK's carbon capture demonstration project, only to have to redevelop the entire carbon capture programme.

There were the flat-lining recycling rates. The failure to deliver the promised Deposit Return Scheme. The inability to deliver a coherent waste and recycling strategy or crack down on rising levels of waste crime.

There were the missed tree-planting targets. The illegal spills and shameful levels of sewage pollution. The breaches of air quality laws and the High Court rulings demanding a more robust climate strategy.

Each of these policy choices were shaped by the austerity budgets that have defined the past decade and a half. The local authorities that should have been the primary delivery agencies for the net zero transition were pushed to, and sometimes beyond, the point of bankruptcy. HS2 was mis-managed and then scaled back. Rail electrification projects were scrapped, revived, and delayed again. Active travel budgets were slashed. Overseas Development Aid commitments were rolled back. Whitehall departments tasked with overseeing one of the most complex economic transitions in history were cut to the bone. Enforcement agencies that were meant to keep our water and air clean and safe were left without the staff to do their jobs properly. Flood defence budgets were cut, and then quickly reinstated when it kept raining.

This underinvestment across the public sector quickly bled into the private sector, resulting in deteriorating infrastructure and flat-lining productivity. The UK has not built a new reservoir since 1992, even as the population grew and climate risks escalated. As a recent IPPR report calculated, in 2022 the UK was the worst ranked G7 country for investment for the third year running. The country has had the lowest level of investment in the G7 for 24 of the last 30 years. Had the UK maintained an 'average' position for a G7 country over the past three decades it would have mobilised an additional £1.9tr of investment in real terms since 1990.

The many flawed green policy decisions contained in this litany could all be defended in isolation. There were always competing constituencies to please, short term costs to minimise, policy imperfections to tweak. Green Tories were able to comfort themselves that they were acting to minimise the risk of public backlash against climate policies. But the constant triangulation always came at the expense of the need to accelerate decarbonisation efforts and build on the UK's leadership position in the clean tech industries that are already starting to dominate the 21st century. Taken as a whole the underpowered decarbonisation strategy adopted by successive Conservative Prime Ministers fuelled the impression of a government that signed up to the Paris Agreement, hymned the importance of climate action, and adopted a net zero target, but never truly prioritised the measures needed to deliver a green economy.

The big question that haunts green businesses is, if we have been able to deliver genuinely impressive emissions reductions against a back drop of policy u-turns, under-investment, and political chaos, imagine what we could have achieved with a more coherent and consistent strategy.

Meanwhile, the government's inconsistency at best, and hypocrisy at worse, served to enable some ugly politics that will now present a huge challenge to whoever forms the next government.

The ugly

Because any assessment of the Conservative government's environmental record has to balance the impressive track record in terms of emissions reductions, with the fact the Parliament ended with the political consensus on the need for bolder climate action looking more frayed than at any point in modern history.

In an echo of Cameron and May's disastrous approach to Brexit, not once did a Conservative Prime Minister smack down those climate sceptic colleagues who fundamentally disagreed with the government on both basic science and one of the central planks of its economic and security strategy. Rather than boldly make the case for the net zero transition, all too often Conservative Ministers treated decarbonisation as a chore to be complained about. It was an approach that has culminated in Sunak repeatedly criticising one of the only parts of the British economy that is growing. His pitch to voters has been 'net zero is difficult and expensive, but we should still try to do it, only slower and with less enthusiasm'. Is it any wonder the large majority of voters who say they care about the environment remain so unimpressed?

Sunak's confusing campaign has compounded an equally incoherent policy programme, where successive Conservative leaders have promised to tackle the climate crisis while signing off on new fossil fuel projects. Cameron's fracking obsession was followed by a massive road-building programme and approval for a new coal mine, which was followed by Sunak's desire for annual oil and gas drilling licensing rounds. The government talked of carbon targets one minute and fuel duty freezes and cuts to air passenger duty the next - and never once acknowledged the contradiction. Sunak is nearing the end of a campaign where he has repeatedly insisted his plans would deliver on the UK's legally binding emissions targets, but never once explained how.

The paradox has pleased no one. The climate sceptics on the Party's right will only be happy once the coal mines have been re-opened and every corner of northern England has been fracked. The environmental movement has been left understandably outraged. Businesses wanting to invest in the technologies of the future have quietly despaired, as evidenced by today's thinly veiled attack on the government from the CBI.

Meanwhile, the UK's allies around the world noticed that Sunak spent only a few hours at the COP28 Climate Summit last year and even ordered his Minister to leave early. The UK did ultimately sign up to an international accord pledging to support a "transitioning away from fossil fuels" - and then within weeks was advancing plans to mandate the annual issuing of oil and gas drilling licenses.

Sunak has tried to defuse criticism by highlighting how his young daughters quiz him frequently about climate change. But he has not translated their concern into a coherent or ambitious policy programme. And after 14 years it is hard to recall a moment when a Conservative leader really levelled with the public about either the severity of the climate crisis, the realities of shifting geo-politics, nor the historic opportunity offered by the net zero transition. Countless teachable moments have been lost to the flood waters. One of the biggest issues of the age has been airily dismissed as 'green crap'. Too often the national interest has seemed to come a distant second to whatever psychodrama was gripping the Conservative Party.

The tragedy of the past 14 years is one of opportunity costs, of paths not taken, of time we won't get back. The government's response to the climate crisis and the net zero transition has provided an illustrative microcosm of its approach to everything. There have been good intentions and some quietly effective policies, but it has all been overshadowed by a toxic mix of political tribalism, chronic short-termism, and magical thinking. We have been told we can cut investment and become wealthier, that we can erect trade barriers and boost trade, that we can dig for more fossil fuels and still decarbonise. Boris Johnson's notorious line that he is ‘pro having cake and pro eating it' has been the mantra of the age. At a deeply serious time, we have had a deeply unserious government.

If, as seems likely, this week heralds a sea change in Parliament the Conservative government should be remembered for having played a key role in catalysing the first phase of the UK's net zero transition - and for delivering a period of self-indulgent political turmoil that meant the opportunity to place climate action at the heart of a decade of economic renewal was badly squandered.

You can now sign up to attend the fifth annual Net Zero Festival, which will be hosted by BusinessGreen on October 22-23 at the Business Design Centre in London.

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