Clegg, Cable and Huhne all touted their green credentials as testing times await
Chris Huhne and Vince Cable are never going to win any gongs for their oratory, while Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg appears to mistake getting visibly angry with rhetorical gravitas. But in their own ways, each of the triumvirate of senior Lib Dems delivered quietly impressive speeches at this week's conference, particularly from a green business perspective.
Despite facing significant criticism for his role in watering down the Green Investment Bank and opposing more ambitious emissions targets post 2020, Cable reiterated his commitment to green growth and set tongues wagging about the possibility of a green-tinged stimulus package before party apparatchiks insisted no such largesse was being planned.
Meanwhile, Clegg made a good fist of ensuring the Lib Dems take ownership of the government's green achievements, insisting they remain fully committed to tackling climate change and are the driving force behind the Green Investment Bank, Green Deal, green transport initiatives and so on.
Inevitably, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne was tasked with putting flesh on the bones of the party's green thinking, and while the near-total absence of significant new environmental policies was disappointing, he offered an eloquent explanation as to why the development of a low carbon economy is both essential and beneficial to the UK. He also once again praised the fast-expanding green business sector, unequivocally asserting that "green business is good business".
There was nothing new in Huhne's speech beyond his announcement of measures designed to bolster competition in the energy market. But the willingness of three of the party's most senior figures to stress the primacy of the green economy and assert a vision where the low carbon economy allows the UK to not just cut carbon emissions but also bolster energy security, create jobs, drive economic growth and boost living standards was welcome in itself.
The focus on green issues may not have been all-consuming, but it will likely prove sufficient to reassert the Lib Dems as the driving force behind the coalition's green agenda, particularly given David Cameron and George Osborne's deafening silence on environmental issues. It is highly unlikely that senior figures at the upcoming Labour and Conservative conferences will give as much air time to environmental issues (it will be hugely interesting to see if Cameron can find space for climate change in his upcoming conference speech given growing disquiet from the right of his party) and as such the Lib Dems have a good opportunity to retain their position as the greenest of the three major parties, even as their poll standings collapse.
But the problem for the Lib Dems is less with their green intentions, more with their ability to translate those intentions into action.
It is in the nature of any new industry to feel that it is not getting enough support from government, but the sense you get from green businesses is that while they are frustrated at the pace of the development of the low carbon economy they have been broadly impressed with the coalition government's first year in office. There are exceptions – most notably the solar industry and its anger at the appallingly mishandled cuts to feed-in tariffs – but on the whole there is an understanding that the environmentally progressive voices in the government have won a series of key battles on the budget settlement for DECC, the formation of the Green Investment Bank, the electricity market reforms, the scope of the Green Deal, and most importantly more ambitious emissions targets for 2025.
The challenge for Huhne and co is that we are now entering a phase where these plans have to be put into action. Over the course of the autumn the government has to finalise and pass the Energy Bill, delivering the clarity that is urgently required for the Green Deal, secure State Aid approval for the Green Investment Bank, and ensure it is ready to begin investing next April as promised, reach a decision on mandatory carbon reporting for large business, prepare the terms for next year's review of feed-in tariffs, and agree new banding for Renewables Obligation subsidies. Oh, and play some kind of positive role at the UN climate change summit in Durban.
There is broad business and political support for all these policies, but they now have to be finalised and delivered against a backdrop of an increasingly anti-green right wing press, emboldened Conservative backbench critics, poor polling, a Treasury that is still largely opposed to green growth, an economic recovery of breathtaking fragility, and, most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions which according to the latest figures are heading in the wrong direction and rising again.
Moreover, these manoeuvrings come ahead of the really difficult policy execution phase. Successive governments have shown that policies that work well on paper suddenly struggle in the real world, particularly when, as is the case with the government's green policies, they require complex co-ordination between a host of different departments, regulators, businesses, and other bodies.
The Green Deal is just one case in point. Within 12 months DECC has to pass the Energy Bill and finalise all the finer details of the scheme, deliver the results of its research into how best to encourage take-up of the scheme, ensure a skilled and qualified workforce is in place to undertake the work, get the commercial backers on board who will actually deliver Green Deal services, and get the marketing campaign sorted to ensure people do actually sign up to the scheme. It is quite a workload for any organisation, let alone a relatively small government department with countless other things on its plate.
There is nothing to say all these policies cannot be delivered and it is clear that the coalition has made reasonable progress during its first year. But it is also plain that if these policies are to be successfully executed, DECC will need more support than it has had to date from other key departments such as the Treasury, Transport, Defra, and even Vince Cable's BIS.
The other key challenge for the Lib Dems is that while they are proving relatively effective at enacting green policies that have been several years in the pipeline (one of Labour's more justified gripes is that it was already working on flagship measures such as the Green Investment Bank, the Green Deal and Electricity Market Reforms when it was kicked from office) they are yet to map out a vision for the next wave of green policies. And if the repeated warnings from the Committee on Climate Change that we are not cutting emissions fast enough tells us anything, it is that significantly more ambitious policies will be required to deliver a genuinely green economy.
If the Lib Dems are serious in their self-professed role as protectors of the national interest then the second half of this parliament needs to see them lead the development of a new package of green policies.
The conference gave them one for starters with members voting in favour of a tax on the windfall profits existing nuclear operators will enjoy when the Treasury's carbon floor price comes into effect in 2013. There is an open-and-shut case for such a levy, which should also be levelled on existing renewable energy generators, and it is Lib Dem ministers that should be leading calls for it to be introduced and for the resulting revenue to be used for green projects.
Similarly, the coalition has so far failed miserably in its stated aim of increasing the proportion of revenue provided by green taxes and again it is Lib Dem ministers that should be teaming up with Conservative MPs such as Zac Goldsmith who have been leading calls for higher green taxes.
The past week's conference has confirmed that the Lib Dem's green heart is in rude health, but whether it is strong enough to deliver the scale of green policies required remains to be seen.
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