The Energy and Climate Change Secretary is taking on critics of the green agenda, but he needs business support
The gloves have finally come off. Chris Huhne's speech to the RenewableUK conference in Manchester today proves that, far from blowing over, the Cabinet-level row over the UK's green policy direction is escalating.
British politics is far too polite for ministers to launch all-out assaults on colleagues, even when they are from the opposite sides of a coalition. But Huhne's comments are so thinly veiled that the attack on Chancellor George Osborne and his anti-green colleagues is plain for all to see.
Just look at the rhetoric Huhne chose to use. "We are not going to save our economy by turning our back on renewable energy," he said. Remind you of anything? At the start of this month it was Osborne who treated the Conservative Party Conference to the factually dubious assertion that "we're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business".
Similarly, Huhne claimed that "Yes, the UK is only two per cent of global carbon emissions. But if we grasp the opportunity now our businesses and economy can be much more than two per cent of the solution." It was of course Osborne who first used the two per cent factoid (which ignores the UK's huge imported emissions) in his speech to justify his promise that the UK will no longer lead the EU in cutting emissions.
He may not refer to his Cabinet colleagues by name, but the meaning is crystal clear. Huhne thinks Osborne and Co are quite simply wrong. Wrong to lay the bulk of the blame for rising energy bills on green policies, wrong to regard the green economy as an unaffordable cost, wrong to suggest the UK should relinquish its position as a genuine leader in environmental policy, and wrong to relegate climate change to an inconvenient side issue.
This is brave, and some might say foolhardy, politics. Already critics are lining up to take faux offence at the Energy and Climate Change Secretary's decision to characterise opponents of renewable energy as "curmudgeons and faultfinders ... climate sceptics and armchair engineers who are selling Britain's ingenuity short".
The Telegraph reported that Osborne and his colleagues have been "antagonised" by Huhne's comments, while Simon Less, head of energy at the Policy Exchange think-tank, argued that the speech was "unhelpful and deeply worrying", claiming that it was "insulting" to conflate those concerned about the cost of renewable energy policy with climate change deniers.
Less's analysis is justified, up to a point. There are legitimate concerns about the costs of renewable energy subsidies. But Huhne is all too aware of them. That is why his department has set out proposals to cut renewables subsidies, will almost certainly announce further cuts to the feed-in tariff incentives in the coming weeks, and is working on a flagship scheme to curb domestic energy bills through the Green Deal energy efficiency scheme. That is also why there is a continuous and healthy debate in the green business and NGO community on whether alternative policy approaches might prove more effective.
You also have to take Huhne's speech in the context in which it is given. Those accusing him of sparking a Cabinet row need to remember that he did not start this fight.
It was the Conservative Party Conference that did its utmost to end the UK's long-standing green political consensus, with proposals to reinstate weekly bin collections, increase the speed limit, and Osborne's incendiary dismissal of the UK's low carbon ambitions. It is the Cabinet's right-wing ideologues (many of whom are rumoured to be privately sceptical about the need to tackle climate change) who are now apparently having second thoughts about green policies that are in the coalition agreement and are largely necessary to meet the carbon targets imposed by a Climate Change Act that at the time had cross-party support.
You can argue that Huhne's intemperate language is 'unhelpful', but again it has to be set against a context where his opponents' media attack dogs are spouting daily untruths to undermine the UK's low carbon agenda.
The critics of renewable energy are to a large extent "curmudgeons and faultfinders ... climate sceptics and armchair engineers" who are increasingly putting forward complex and in some cases legitimate arguments over subsidies, while failing to reveal the fact that they do not really believe anything should be done to address climate change. They can complain about Huhne calling them out all they like; many of them have called him and the wider green business community much worse.
The fallout from Huhne's speech is likely to be significant. To put it bluntly, right wing politicians and media like to dish it out, but they do not like to take it. It is now inevitable that Huhne, already unpopular with many of his coalition colleagues following the vicious rows over the AV referendum, is going to come under sustained attack for his desire to stick by the government's green policies.
As a result, he needs support. His Lib Dem colleagues Nick Clegg and Vince Cable need to repeatedly and explicitly put themselves on the record in support of the UK's green agenda, while green Tories such as Greg Barker, Tim Yeo, Oliver Letwin and Zac Goldsmith need to continue to challenge the reactionary forces in their party. Most importantly, Prime Minister David Cameron (who it today turns out regards the Queen's Jubilee as more significant than the Rio+20 Earth Summit, which he will not now be attending) needs to break his silence on environmental issues and publicly recommit himself to his government's low carbon ambitions.
But most importantly, Huhne needs support from progressive businesses, including the many renewable energy firms he name checked in his speech as a way of providing the evidence of actual job creation and economic growth - verifiable evidence that was notably missing from Osborne's suggestion that businesses are suffering because of green policies.
I've argued repeatedly that the growing numbers of green businesses need to find their voice in order to counter those old school firms that still regard environmental policies as a cost. Now, with a minister betting a huge amount of his political capital on supporting those self same green businesses, that need is more apparent than ever.
Encouragingly, the early indications are good. The CBI's Dr Matthew Brown praised Huhne for "highlighting the economic opportunity for UK plc from low-carbon technologies", and in a carefully worded statement urged ministers to sort out their differences and deliver "certainty in both policy and language" so that low carbon investors see the UK as a good place to do business.
People might not like the incendiary language but, as Greenpeace's Liz Hutchins argued this morning, there is a "war" going on at the heart of government for the future direction of the UK's low carbon policy.
The only way to win that war is if the business community knocks on Osborne's door and tells him in no uncertain terms that he is wrong. Huhne has led the way. It is time for more green businesses to follow.
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