The Chancellor's anti-green rhetoric will have grated, but there are still reasons for low carbon firms to be cheerful
It is the job of business to be ever optimistic. Nothing defines the successful entrepreneur like their optimism, their unshaking belief that their business will go from strength to strength, that each backward step is simply a curtain raiser for a giant leap forward.
Many of the world's most successful firms (and a fair few failures) have been fuelled by the optimistic mantra, "build it and they will come". The business community serves a valuable economic and social role through its belief in a better tomorrow, its unwavering pursuit of the technologies and innovations that will drive continued success. As the banking crisis that triggered the economic crisis proved, overconfidence is a curse, but as the growth crisis now proves an economy cannot operate without corporate optimism.
Which begs the question, how do businesses maintain this crucial optimism when the economic outlook is so bleak and, more specifically, how can green businesses remain optimistic when the chancellor is so publicly dismissive of the low-carbon economy?
It is hard to overstate the damage to confidence done by George Osborne's all-out assault on the low-carbon economy in yesterday's annual statement (and do not believe his green defenders, an all-out assault is precisely what it was).
The government will try to dismiss the criticism as the usual bleatings from impossible to satisfy green NGOs and Guardianistas, but there are plenty of corporate executives and business lobbyists who are privately furious over what one tactfully described as the "very frustrating way Osborne articulates his position on green issues".
There is genuine anger across the low-carbon economy – a sector that employs 910,000 people – about the way the words Osborne uses are making it harder for them to attract investors and drive growth.
The chancellor could have adopted a carefully nuanced explanation for his decision to provide increased support for energy-intensive firms, detailing how the support will only be available to those businesses most at risk of "carbon leakage" and those that commit to improving their energy efficiency.
He could have explained that while reforms to planning and conservation rules were essential to drive economic growth, he remains fully aware of the concerns of the National Trust and is doing all he can to ameliorate them.
He could have linked the impact on the UK's economy of rising global fossil fuel policies with his commitment to provide £200m to help people improve the efficiency of their homes, dish out £100m to enhance the energy efficiency of heavy industry, and launch five new offshore wind centres – all of which was in the published autumn statement.
This would require no changes in policy, just a change in emphasis – the adoption of a conciliatory tone.
Instead, Osborne chose to belittle and undermine environmental concerns. He chose to barely mention the green policies the government is pursuing and dismiss his cabinet colleagues' efforts to create a low-carbon economy with the killer sentence: "If we burden [business] with endless social and environmental goals – however worthy in their own right – then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer."
And if that were not enough, he then argued that "gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats" were placing "ridiculous costs on British businesses" (the hunt is now on for a single UK firm that is being bankrupted by EU habitat rules).
This unhelpful rhetoric could yet represent a grave political and economic miscalculation for the chancellor.
Politically, he has put himself on a collision course with not only those green NGOs that the government is happy to dismiss as raving lefties, but also the well-known revolutionaries at the National Trust, the RSPB, and the Campaign for Rural England. When a policy angers Friends of the Earth and the Telegraph, as the government's planning reforms have done, you know you are in a bit of trouble. I doubt some of his backbenchers from marginal rural seats will thank the chancellor in the long run.
He has also made it easier for the Lib Dems to take almost complete ownership of the government's green agenda, allowing them to fight the next election as the progressive force at the heart of government, defying the nasty Tories to create new green jobs and introduce popular measures such as the Green Deal and Renewable Heat Incentive.
And he has publicly defied his prime minister. Until Cameron gives a meaningful speech on the environment (and he should, soon) we have to assume he continues to regard climate change as an existential threat and the low-carbon economy as a necessity not a luxury. Unless the prime minister is preparing for a credibility shredding u-turn on green issues, he is going to have to at some point publicly contradict his chancellor and stress that green policies are an opportunity, not a burden.
More significant still, the chancellor's failure to deliver a more nuanced argument risks damaging investor confidence and taking the wind from the sails of one of the economy's few growth areas.
The only way for green businesses to resist the gloomy pessimism implicit in Osborne's speech is to ignore his words and try to focus on the more optimistic picture painted by some of his government's actions.
This is not to suggest the government's approach is perfect. As we've documented, the handling of the cuts to solar feed-in tariffs has been little short of a shambles, the car-centric transport policy is a mess, and the government is still too timid when it comes to driving low-carbon investment.
But when climate minister Greg Barker says the government is "underpromising and overdelivering" on green issues, he has a point.
They are not getting much publicity at the moment, but measures such as the Green Investment Bank, the Green Deal, the Renewable Heat Incentive, and the plans for new offshore wind farms, CCS plants, and high-speed rail are genuinely world-leading policies that will drive huge investment in low-carbon technology and green businesses. They may have been in the pipeline when the Labour government left office, but it is the coalition that is turning them into a reality following 13 years of drift on energy policy.
These policies could and should all be more ambitious, but there are enough positive measures in the mix to refuel the corporate optimism that should be inherent to any business committed to prospering in a green and sustainable economy.
There are still a few reasons to be cheerful – it is just a shame the chancellor chooses to make them so hard to find.
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