The Deputy Prime Minister offered a hugely encouraging defence of the green economy, but now is the time to turn words into action
With the Paxman-Brand accusation that modern political leaders are inter-changeable facsimiles of one another who are not even worthy of a cross in a box once every five years still ringing in his ears, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday attempted to convince an audience of business executives and NGO campaigners that on at least one of the great issues of the age there are important and existential divisions between the three main parties. What is more. it is an issue that is of great import to The Sun's one-time "shagger of the year" (that's Brand, not Paxman), who recently argued that the failure of the political elite to properly engage with this looming crisis was one of the reasons he was so disenchanted by the whole Westminster carry-on. That issue, of course, is the environment.
I don't doubt Clegg could point to plenty of other areas where he feels the Liberal Democrats offer a distinctive and superior proposition to the two other main parties, but yesterday's clear goal was to reinforce the Liberal Democrat's claim to being the greenest of the three main parties at a time when the government's commitment to virtually every aspect of the environmental agenda is facing intense and largely justified questioning. Did he succeed? Only in part.
There is no doubt much of Clegg's speech will have been warmly welcomed by green business leaders, investors, and campaigners. At a time when his Conservative coalition partners continue to leak stories signalling their hostility to much of the green agenda on an almost daily basis it was refreshing to hear the Deputy Prime Minister state unequivocally that "my commitment to the green agenda is as strong as it ever was". It was even more refreshing to hear him tell his audience that no government of which he is a part will "turn its back on the environment". The signal to his coalition partners that the Lib Dem's can only be pushed so far when it comes to green policies was both loud and clear. Anyone doubting that green issues could one day break the coalition could yet be forced to revise their expectations.
Clegg also enjoyed some success in reinforcing the political dividing lines with which he hopes to fight the next election. The combination of collective cabinet responsibility and a generally collegiate nature meant Clegg refrained from referring to those Conservative colleagues who oppose more ambitious green policies by name, but his frustration was palpable when he recounted how the cabinet had been briefed by chief scientist Sir Mark Walport on the recent IPCC report - "how much more hard science is needed to convince the climate change deniers they've got it wrong?" he asked, as the image of Owen Paterson loomed in his audience's minds. He gave similarly short shrift to the Conservative argument that we should slow the pace of decarbonisation and lower our green ambition for short term economic gain. "Whenever someone tells you that we can't afford to go green, correct them: we can't afford not to," he advised. "If you are for the environment, you are for cutting bills, growing our economy and creating jobs."
The question of whether the Lib Dem's offer a greener alternative to Labour when both support a decarbonisation target for the power sector and higher levels of clean tech investment is one for another day. But with Clegg slamming Ed Miliband's price freeze policy as a "con" and dismissing the Tory right's short termist and climate sceptic arguments the positioning of the Lib Dem's as the "mainstream political party - a governing party - for whom the environment is a priority" was anything but subtle, and none the less effective for that.
Last but not least, green business leaders would have been encouraged by Clegg's broader reading of the challenges the green economy currently faces and the steps that are needed to deliver genuinely sustainable business models. He lamented the passing of the political consensus on the importance of green action, acknowledged the need for policy stability and clear political signals for investors, understood the importance of highlighting to the public the compelling economic, commercial, and quality of life benefits associated with green investment, and reiterated the fact that the climate and environmental challenges we face require a still more ambitious response if we are to do right by future generations.
He also backed up this analysis by highlighting the often under-reported progress the coalition has made with support for clean energy through the Energy Bill, the establishment of the Green Investment Bank, and the commitment to ambitious EU environmental targets, to name just a few of the successes Clegg wants the Lib Dems to get their fair share of credit for.
And yet, despite this encouraging rhetoric, the speech still managed to leave many of the green business executives and industry trade representatives I spoke to afterwards somewhat underwhelmed. Because for all the astute analysis and the statements of green ambition the speech lacked the policy detail or political attacks that might serve to move the current environmental debate forward.
This is in many ways understandable. There is still 18 months to go until the next election and neither of the coalition parties want to engineer a divorce while Labour is leading in the polls. Clegg has to go to work every day alongside his Conservative cabinet colleagues and is therefore reluctant to launch a fully-fledged attack on the Tory Tea Party tendency, even if it is actively seeking to undermine the very policies he regards as his party's proudest achievement. Equally, he does not want to reveal a negotiating red line on issues such as funding for green levy schemes or the fourth carbon budget review that could end up with him having to either U-turn or break the coalition over environmental policy.
But at the same time, can you credibly argue you are part of "a radical and reforming green government" and stand by silently as some cabinet members wilfully block effective green policies? Can you promise "ambitious" emissions targets and refuse to rule out a potential watering down of the UK's flagship carbon budgets? Can you hymn the importance of green policy stability and the vital role of energy efficiency and carefully leave the door ajar for signing off on a reduction in the budget for energy efficiency schemes?
There are good reasons why Clegg is reluctant to be more critical of Ministers such as Owen Paterson and Eric Pickles who have repeatedly blocked more ambitious green policies, just as there are good reasons why he won't reveal negotiating red lines on the fourth carbon budget and the future of the ECO scheme while those private coalition negotiations are ongoing.
But there are equally good reasons why green businesses and NGOs want to see the Deputy Prime Minister provide more detailed commitments on these issues. The Lib Dem's have secured several important green successes, but they compromised on a decarbonisation target, they compromised on the Green Investment Bank being able to borrow, they compromised on a review of the fourth carbon budget, and there have been countless other smaller compromises on policies that would have boosted the UK's decarbonisation efforts. Yes, compromise is a necessity of coalition, but until Clegg makes an explicit commitment to protect the fourth carbon budget green campaigners will justifiably ask themselves whether further climb downs that damage the green economy are about to be made.
There is nothing for the Lib Dem's to lose by being more assertive and aggressive in their condemnation of the Tory right's attempts to torpedo the green economy. If Clegg and other cabinet ministers can't do it and look their colleagues in the eye across the cabinet table, then Lib Dem backbenchers (and Labour MPs for that matter) should be instructed to make the case against David Cameron's recent flip-flopping on green issues much more vocally. The Conservatives have proved remarkably adept at using backbench outriders to shape the debate against green action, it is time the two other main parties launched a more effective counter-attack. If many Tories can make their hostility towards the Lib Dem-controlled DECC blindingly obvious, then the Lib Dem's should stop pulling their punches about Pickles' anti-renewables planning reforms or Paterson's various science-lite, ideology-heavy crusades. For the Lib Dems, there are no votes to be lost and plenty to be won through a more full-throated condemnation of the Conservative inconsistency and U-turns that have created such a disorientating green investment climate.
Meanwhile, Clegg similarly has much to gain in speaking out more frequently on the huge economic benefits associated with clean technologies and the green agenda. Admittedly, this is easier said than done when the first two questions he faced from the BBC and ITV after a speech on the critical need for action on the environment were about Ian Duncan Smith's blundering Universal Credit reforms (it was a metaphor for the political and media class' short termism acted out right in front of our eyes). But if Clegg is serious when he says that those making the case for the green economy need to get on the front foot, then as a political leader who is committed to the environment he needs to be seen to lead. That means more time and energy invested in promoting green investment, highlighting green policy successes, and calling out green opponents.
The Lib Dem's commitment to the green economy is heart-felt and deep-rooted. Clegg is to be believed when he says any government that contains the Lib Dem's will push for ambitious green policies, not least because his party will always demand it. But sadly, for as long as the political consensus on the urgent need for green action continues to recede he will struggle to deliver sufficiently ambitious policies, just as he will struggle to convince investors to bring forward the low carbon projects that are urgently needed in sufficient scale.
If Clegg really wants to cement the coalition's, and by extension the Lib Dem's, green reputation then the big compromise on the delay to a decarbonisation target cannot be repeated. Coalition life is difficult, but you cannot declare that climate change is one of the great challenges of the age one moment and then fail to back necessary climate change policies that you and your party clearly believe in the next. Clegg may not wish to make his negotiating red lines public as yet, but as a bare minimum he needs to protect the fourth carbon budget, deliver an explicitly improved settlement for "green levy" schemes, and re-think the loophole that would allow coal power to continue to be used deep into the 2020s. He also needs to set out a much more ambitious set of environmental commitments that would prove that any post-2015 coalition containing the Lib Dem's would lead a further acceleration of green progress.
He is unlikely to win over Russell Brand or Jeremy Paxman, but if he can back up his encouraging rhetoric with an equally strong and successful defence of important environmental policies in the coming months then he might yet secure the respect of green business leaders and NGOs. He would also help to deliver some of the policy certainty that he acknowledges is desperately needed, and in so doing help to drive additional investment ahead of an election that increasingly looks like it will represent a defining battle for the future of the green economy.
Fail to deliver on these policies, and for all the progress on the Energy Bill and the Green Investment Bank, for all the fact that it is the Conservatives that are actively seeking to undermine green progress, for all the party's historic commitment to the green economy, the Lib Dem's coalition days will be remembered for a failure to live up to their early green promise.
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