The Prime Minister reckons climate change is a grave threat, but the Chancellor does not think it worthy of mention - where does this leave Tory environmental policy?
Speaking at the UN in New York last week, David Cameron unequivocally described climate change as "one of the most serious threats facing our world", pledged the UK would play a central role in leading the global response, and sketched out a centre right vision for decarbonisation based on free trade and clean technology. Despite all the criticism the Prime Minister has faced from green groups, this short speech was of a piece with all of Cameron's previous public pronouncements on climate change, which ever since he first hugged that husky have always sought to highlight the urgent need to cut greenhouse emissions and build a low carbon economy.
Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week, George Osborne unequivocally declared that the UK's future prosperity depended on its ability to urgently deliver both high and low carbon infrastructure. Climate change, the issue his boss believes poses one of the biggest threats to the UK's long term economic security, did not receive so much as a cursory mention.
Unlike Cameron, the Chancellor's stance on climate change and the green economy is not of a piece with his previous pronouncements. Prior to the 2010 election he gave a series of speeches in which he repeatedly declared that if he became Chancellor, "the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe". But since then every conference speech and budget Osborne has given has either relegated climate change and environmental issues to the sidelines or sought to triangulate an existential challenge into a bout of political dog whistling, promising some support for renewables while also hymning the potential of fossil fuels and sniping at green regulations. Today's speech somehow managed to do both.
Osborne may have mentioned the need to build new nuclear plants and renewables capacity, but look at the order he opted for in his section on the new infrastructure the UK needs. There is a reason why runways and shale gas came before nuclear and renewables, just as there is a reason that climate change and carbon targets were ignored. His infrastructure priorities could not be clearer.
The question for green businesses and investors as they prepare for an agonisingly close general election and the inevitable policy shake-up it brings is who speaks for the Conservative Party on environmental issues?
A Prime Minister who has asserted that he wants to prioritise climate action? Or a Chancellor who would frack under a runway if he could? A new Environment Secretary in Liz Truss who this morning was evidently proud of the fact the UK is "leading international efforts to tackle climate change"? Or an old Environment Secretary in Owen Paterson who this weekend was telling a fringe meeting of his battles with the "Green Blob" and arguing that with climate change "the measures we are taking to counter projected dangers may actually be causing more damage now than those dangers"?
The deep split within the Conservative Party on climate change and the green economy has been an open secret for years, but as a looming election approaches the confusion and inconsistency these divisions create are becoming ever more serious.
The contradictions are too numerous to mention, but here are just a few. The Conservative leadership says it wants to focus on delivering decarbonisation at least cost, but has watered down energy efficiency programmes that promise one of the most cost effective routes to cutting carbon emissions. The party is concerned about high energy bills, but wants to halt the development of relatively low cost onshore wind farms and instead focus on more costly offshore projects. Osborne has reportedly opposed calls for a decarbonisation target for the power sector, but the leadership is still yet to explain how carbon targets it currently remains committed to under the Climate Change Act will be met by 2030 if the power sector is not decarbonised. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles remains nominally committed to localism, except when local planners support new onshore wind farms or oppose fracking projects, in which case he moves to change planning rules or reverse local decisions. Flood defence spending gets cut by the Treasury, until it rains, when it gets increased just enough to meet the politically convenient but scientifically irrelevant point at which Ministers can claim it has been increased against the last parliament. And David Cameron wants to prioritise action on climate change one day and then tear up rules on building energy efficiency the next.
These tensions and contradictions would amount to nothing more than yet another bout of CCHQ in-fighting, were it not for the fact that the policy confusion it is creating presents a serious challenge to the UK's fast-growing green economy. The current Conservative Party position on climate change and the green economy appears to amount to support for the Climate Change Act and over-arching attempts to cut emissions, coupled with hostility towards many of the policies designed to help the UK meet those targets and vocal cheerleading for more fossil fuel exploration. It promises support for favoured clean tech sectors, such as electric cars, graphene, and nuclear, and public condemnation of less favoured sectors, such as wind, solar, and energy efficiency. It asserts that climate change is a serious threat to the UK, but deliberately fuels the impression that the next leader of the party, whoever that may be, would happily torch Cameron's entire green agenda. Above all this disarray sits Cameron himself, asserting that climate action is essential but refusing to provide a coherent vision on how to deliver the scale of action that he acknowledges is necessary.
In short, it is an almighty mess. And the most frustrating thing of all is that it does not have to be this way. It is perfectly possible to offer a compelling centre-right vision for tackling climate change. Indeed, Osborne almost managed it himself, even as he wilfully ignored climate change itself. In making the case for new infrastructure and disruptive technology the Chancellor could have been making the case for decarbonisation, if only he'd ditched the sections on runways and fracking and more explicitly demonstrated how his "pro-business" agenda would aid the green businesses of the future. Throw in some ambitious new policies on resource and energy efficiency as well as clean tech R&D and you've got the basis of a credible centre right pitch for a greener, more competitive, and more livable economy.
Having last week publicly declared the need to prioritise climate action, Cameron has a moral and political obligation to this week explain how and why he will lead the UK's response to this global challenge. The only reason for not providing more detail on how he plans to build on this government's green achievements (and there have been some) was evident in the silence that greeted Liz Truss' two mentions of climate change in an otherwise crowd-pleasing speech to the Tory faithful. But a political leader with the courage of his convictions would face down the UKIP-flirting elements of his party on this most important of issues and would finally deliver the coherent green vision that the Conservative offer to the country currently lacks.
As Matthew D'Ancona observed at the height of this year's floods (and I make no apologies for quoting this line yet again), "if the PM truly believes that anthropogenic global warming is responsible for potentially catastrophic changes in the weather - then it ought, logically, to be his priority, more important even than economic recovery. One cannot be 'pragmatic' or 'in favour of sensible compromise' about a threat to the survival of the human race".
Currently, the offer to the green business community at the next election amounts to the Green Party and the Lib Dems neck and neck on six per cent of the vote in the latest polls; an increasingly credible green vision and package of policies from Labour that is being seriously undermined by wider questions about the party's economic and business credibility that even Ed Miliband's biggest fan would be hard-pressed to argue he addressed last week; and a contradictory mix of Conservative environmental policies that are further confused by a combination of warm words on climate action and naked hostility to the so-called "green blob".
If Cameron is serious about remaining as Prime Minister for a second term then he must use his final conference speech before the election to explain once and for all how a Conservative government would respond to "one of the most serious threats facing our world". Such a declaration may be met with stony silence by some of the Tory faithful, but many business leaders and entrepreneurs across the UK would be cheering him on.
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