Clegg, Miliband and Cameron could yet usher in a historic transformation of the UK economy – businesses and investors should take note
Yes, the question posed in the headline to this blog is wilfully provocative. It sure doesn't feel like a green golden age is just around the corner, does it?
Few things engender cynicism quite like an election campaign, and this one is anything but an exception to that rule. Characters have been assassinated, spending pledges have been left unfunded, dog whistles have been blown, journalists have been heckled, semantics have been abused, and the electorate have been treated with that unique mix of fear, condescension and contempt which our post-expenses scandal political class appear to have perfected. Worst of all for green businesses and investors, the urgent need to transform our economy is being largely ignored by both the main political parties and the mainstream media.
And yet yesterday I realised something genuinely inspirational could still be found in this most dispiriting of election campaigns, if you just know where to look. And where is this much-needed optimism to be found? In the unlikeliest of places for anyone seeking political inspiration: the Liberal Democrat manifesto.
The Lib Dems may currently be about as popular as a fracking well on the village green, with the latest polls seeing them plumb near subterranean levels of support and speculation mounting that Nick Clegg could lose his seat. But with those same polls pointing to a hung parliament it would be unwise to bet against the junior coalition party just yet. And that is why the Lib Dem manifesto and the genuinely bold green proposals it contains matter.
For all his myriad faults, the Liberal Democrat manifesto suggests it is Clegg, rather than David Cameron and Ed Miliband, who has the firmest grasp on the key lessons of coalition government. By setting out his five priorities voters get a clear sense of the policies the party would cling hardest to in any post-election negotiations. By putting forward a mixture of pragmatic and occasionally bold green policies the party has a strong position from which to start negotiations. The party may once again be positioning itself to be labelled the worst traitor since Judas, but like it or not this is how grown-up coalition politics work.
The breadth of environmental policies being put forward would give the party bargaining chips - could opposition to airport expansion be dropped in return for a power sector decarbonisation target? Could an office for environmental responsibility be quietly shelved for a clear commitment to a Nature Law? Meanwhile, the ambition contained in targets for phasing out unabated coal, delivering ultra-low carbon vehicles, or drastically increasing recycling rates means significant progress can still be achieved even if the stated goals are diluted slightly in the inevitable give and take of coalition talks.
However, the most encouraging aspect of the Lib Dem manifesto is how little may have to be watered down in the event of a coalition. In fact, this green prospectus may end up being strengthened further.
The reality is the Lib Dem prospectus is nothing more or less than a natural extension of the Climate Change Act and the global requirement to decarbonise our economies. The picture the Lib Dems create of a low carbon economy where, in just 15 years' time, our power is carbon free, our coal and gas pollution is captured, our buses and taxis are powered by electricity or hydrogen, the vast majority of our materials are recycled, our infrastructure is climate resilient, and our natural world is in much-needed recovery is the picture that will inexorably result if the UK honours its climate pledges.
That is why the proposals put forward by the Lib Dems are, for all their cosmetic differences, broadly in line with Labour's similarly encouraging energy and climate change commitments. The two parties may be divided over Labour's energy price freeze and precisely how the UK's faltering energy efficiency strategy should be strengthened, they may end up divided over new runways, but these disagreements do not feel insurmountable.
When it comes to the green economy Labour and the Lib Dems may offer nominally different approaches, but their end goal is the same: a vibrant, clean and successful decarbonised economy capable of delivering the biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution. If the electoral maths allows it, it should be possible for the two parties to finesse a truly ambitious agreement on climate and energy policy, even if they remain at loggerheads on other issues. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens could similarly endorse much of this agenda and may well demand even more support for clean energy and greener neighbourhoods.
And what of David Cameron and the Conservatives? This is where the energy and climate component of the election gets really interesting, because there is plenty in the Lib Dem and Labour prospectuses the Tories should be able to endorse. Earlier this week I argued the energy, climate and environment sections of the Conservative manifesto were disgracefully vague and disappointingly unambitious. That remains the case, but central to their strategy is continued support for the Climate Change Act, from which more detailed policies on clean energy, clean transport and clean air are legally obliged to follow. There is little doubt that in any coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems the Tories would seek to ditch some of Clegg's bolder green pledges, but arguing against better energy efficiency policies or continued decarbonisation would look utterly hypocritical given Cameron's stated support for climate action.
Moreover, the Conservative failure to prioritise green issues in its manifesto gives Clegg leverage. Would the Tories really block green reforms that its manifesto largely supports in principle if not in practice, if in return Clegg offered his support for an EU referendum?
For all the policy uncertainty that an election inevitably leads to, the most likely outcome remains a Conservative- or Labour-led coalition government that would remain fully committed to decarbonisation and increased investment in clean technologies and infrastructure. It seems clear a Labour-led coalition would seek a slightly faster pace of decarbonisation, but it is possible to envisage a Tory-led coalition where the investment climate for green firms remains broadly attractive.
Of course, this is a Panglossian assessment of the current state of play. Cynicism still has an important and valuable role to play in any election campaign. Would a Conservative majority government or an administration propped up by the climate sceptics at UKIP really deliver the low carbon policies the Climate Change Act demands? Can Clegg be trusted to deliver on his green priorities? As several wags have pointed out, the Nick Clegg who is putting forward these ambitious plans should have a word with the Nick Clegg who has been in government for five years. Would a Labour-led coalition of centre left parties be stable enough to deliver a five year green industrial strategy? Why will no one clearly explain how a new wave of spending cuts will impact green government departments and services? Why are all of the main parties singularly failing to address the inherent contradiction between their support for a decarbonised Britain and their support for the North Sea drilling, Home Counties fracking, runway building pollutocracy?
All these questions are valid and some of them will no doubt end up resulting in the kind of depressing answers that justify our cynicism. Moreover, the parties are not, as some cynics argue, all the same, on environmental or many other issues. There is a chasm of difference between the UKIP friendly wing of the Conservative party and the green leading wing of the Labour party, while there are clear policy disagreements to be found on energy efficiency, wind farms, decarbonisation targets, and the clean energy mix.
However, the inspirational and historic 15 to 30 year green transformation of our economy promised by the Lib Dem, Labour, and to a lesser extent Tory manifestos could yet emerge from this most narrow and dispiriting of election campaigns. It might not seem like it at the moment, but the combination of global economic, technology and political trends means that golden age could really be just around the corner. And Clegg, Miliband, and Cameron could yet help deliver it.
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