The Conservative manifesto provides as many questions as answers for the green economy, not least where has the David Cameron who promised credible action on climate change gone?
It is one of the golden rules of green business and campaigning - try to ensure the low carbon economy does not become a partisan party political issue. But boy is the Conservative Party making it hard not to break this particular lobbying rubric at the moment.
Today's Tory manifesto offers little for one of the most important and fast expanding parts of the economy, aims open hostility at one of the country's most popular forms of clean energy, and provides only staggeringly vague and at times contradictory policy signals on how the UK will undergo the massive economic transition it has signed up to. And all this from a party led by a man who has repeatedly declared climate change to be one of the most serious challenges we face.
The logic behind protecting the political consensus on the need for climate action is obvious. Climate change is not a 'right' or 'left' issue, it is too important to be confined to one political tradition and besides many of the most effective responses to climate risks incorporate thinking from both sides of the political divide. Allowing climate action to become synonymous with the left is a recipe for policy instability and a stop-start approach to decarbonisation as governments inevitably rise and fall.
Consequently, one of the most important breakthroughs the UK's green community has made in recent years was the commitment Green Alliance wrestled from each of the three main party leaders to prioritise action on climate change in the next parliament regardless of who forms the next government.
But if this political consensus is to deliver anything in terms of tangible progress for the green economy the UK's leading political parties have an obligation to not just honour the letter of their climate commitment, they also have to provide some evidence they have a coherent plan capable of delivering the large scale transformation of our energy, industrial, and transport sectors that is required.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats just about clear this bar. Their energy and climate strategies contain plenty of elements that green businesses will disagree with and there is little doubt climate hawks would like to see a more ambition on a range of issues. But their commitments to decarbonise the power sector and beef up energy efficiency measures, coupled with party-wide support for the Climate Change Act and a greener industrial strategy demonstrate to voters they are serious about decarbonisation and hold out the promise of investor certainty for green businesses.
In contrast, the Conservative Party manifesto and the reluctance of any of the party's leading figures to talk publicly about climate change and clean energy during the election campaign offers no such reassurance. The sections on energy, climate change, and the environment are so lacking in detail and ambition that you get the impression the authors spent so long fixated on their "long term economic, security, hardworking families, NHS, welfare, Miliband is a ruthless bastard/pathetic weirdo plan" that they simply cobbled together something on doing "even more" on air pollution and "keeping bills as low as possible" and hoped voters wouldn't ask too many questions. They might well get away with it.
Manifestos are notorious for vague promises, all parties do it. But the Tories confusing combination of hymning low cost green energy at the same time as blocking onshore wind farms, and offering promises on energy efficiency, air pollution, flood protection, and clean tech funding that are backed by near zero detail demonstrates something close to contempt for those voters who care about these issues.
In fairness, the manifesto is not entirely lacking in encouraging signals for green businesses and campaigners. The re-statement of the Conservative's commitment to the Climate Change Act and continued decarbonisation is not to sniffed at given some Tory MPs would love to scrap the UK's emissions targets. Similarly, the manifesto is right to highlight how the Conservatives, in partnership with the Lib Dems, have delivered some notable green achievements in the form of the Green Investment Bank, a significant increase in renewable energy capacity, and the formation of a world-leading offshore wind industry. The promise of more funding for electric cars and rail, the introduction of a new marine conservation Blue Belt, and the prospect of a new biodiversity strategy are all to be welcomed.
But even in highlighting its supposed green achievements the Conservatives inadvertently demonstrate how this apparently competent government has failed to deliver on many of its green promises. A deal might have been signed for Hinkley Point, but there is still no decision on whether it will be built. Up to £1bn may have been committed to carbon capture, but after a full five year parliament none of it has been assigned. The final decision on the Swansea Bay Tidal project that the manifesto touts as evidence of Tory success will be left to the next government. The Conservatives may have overseen the "birth" of a new industry in the form of UK shale gas, but this nascent sector has been so mismanaged that we are still a long way from both delivering commercial operations and convincing people that the industry really is compatible with a low carbon Britain.
The manifesto's relatively small number of forward-looking policies invites similar scepticism. Take the commitment on flood defence spending. "We will now go further, building 1,400 new flood defence schemes, to protect 300,000 homes," the manifesto states. But while it details how £3bn was spent in the last parliament on flood defences there is no clear figure for future spending.
Similarly, the manifesto promises to "support low-cost measures on energy efficiency, with the goal of insulating a million more homes over the next five years, supporting our commitment to tackle fuel poverty". But there is no information on how this goal would be met and as the Energy Bill Revolution campaign group pointed out this afternoon one million homes is a massive reduction on the five million homes thought to have received some form of energy efficiency upgrade in the past parliament. We are left to assume a Conservative government would simply continue with current energy efficiency policies - policies that have been roundly slammed by businesses and fuel poverty groups.
Numerous legitimate questions go unanswered, glossed over by a manifesto that fails to provide the clarity green business leaders had been hoping for. Do the Conservatives still support granting the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers? How much funding will be made available to "promising new renewable technologies and research", and who decides what constitutes "promising"? Does the commitment to "not support additional distorting and expensive power sector targets" rule out the decarbonisation target for the power sector that the Committee on Climate Change has recommended? Has the party got anything at all to say about waste, resource efficiency and recycling? I'm hoping to hear back from CCHQ on these various questions, as the manifesto offers no answers.
Similar questions could no doubt be fired at Labour and the Lib Dems, but the lack of clarity from a party running on a platform built on competence, credibility, business opportunity, and security is remarkable.
And then there is the pledge to halt the expansion of onshore wind farms. The one policy that is backed by a degree of detail and simultaneously the one that appears to have been the least thought through. If a party wants to effectively bring an end to onshore wind farms due to their visual impact in a bid to appeal to a particular constituency, that is their business. But in attempting to rationalise an end to subsidies for new wind farms by claiming they "often fail to win public support... and are unable by themselves to provide the firm capacity that a stable energy system requires" the Conservatives have first made themselves look ridiculous and then compounded this ridiculousness by repeatedly insisting their energy strategy is governed by a pursuit of the most cost-effective clean energy.
As numerous commentators have rushed to point out, onshore wind farms command two-third public support, provide no more or less of a challenge to grid operators than offshore wind farms or solar arrays, and deliver clean energy at a cost that is lower than virtually every other option. As a trade association for the wind industry, RenewableUK may have a vested interest, but it is right to describe the Tory policy on wind farms as "breathtakingly illogical and therefore idiotic".
There remain climate hawks in the Conservative ranks, impressive centre right thinkers who know it is essential the party presents a credible decarbonisation strategy. There are sources who insist the Prime Minister is numbered among them. But none of these people is adequately represented in this narrow, uninspiring, and confusing manifesto.
It is to be hoped a Conservative government would follow the logic inherent in its commitment to the Climate Change Act and deliver a much more ambitious green strategy than that offered in this thin prospectus. Because what we have currently is a manifesto that at its best offers a continuation of clean energy and efficiency policies that have proven to be moderately effective but have failed to deliver the large scale transformations that are required. And at its worst provides vague, ill thought out policies that threaten the health of industries the Conservatives once promised to champion.
The Tory manifesto is the result of a party leadership too scared of its own backbenchers and UKIP climate scepticism to offer the kind of green economic vision the UK desperately needs and too disrespectful to voters to provide them with a clear explanation of how a Conservative government would address these most important of issues. The UK's cross-party political consensus on the need for climate action remains, but it is looking more frayed than ever. Expect more and more green businesses and campaigners to stick their heads above the parapet and demand better from a Conservative Party that is risking its credibility on energy and environmental issues with this contradictory, cautious and incoherent set of policies.
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