Al Gore poses a crucial question, is David Cameron really willing and able to lead on climate change?
Al Gore is puzzled by David Cameron and the UK political scene, and it has nothing to do with porcine relations or the inherent democratic flaws in the system of House of Lords patronage. Instead, Gore is bemused by the gaping chasm between the Prime Minister's rhetoric and action on climate change and the self-defeating volte faces that define UK energy and climate change policy, to which the only possible response from the UK's battered green business community is ‘you and me both, mate'.
Gore's intervention, delivered this morning at an event hosted by Green Alliance, is surprising only in its forthrightness. The former vice president's analysis of the way the UK government is at risk of squandering a hard-earned reputation for leadership on climate change, as well as historic reputation for leadership in the world's great economic and cultural transitions, is entirely unsurprising. In lamenting the way the UK appears to be making the wrong choice between the "hard right and the easy wrong" he elegantly skewers the manner in which Ministers have repeatedly allowed short term political concerns to override the long term need to provide a stable policy base from which to decarbonise the UK economy.
Crucially, it is an analysis that is increasingly widely shared, and not just by the climate campaigning scamps who this morning sprayed clean graffiti solar panels on the pavement outside the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). CBI director general John Cridland was this morning just as critical of the UK government's bonfire of green policies and the "worrying signal" it sends businesses, while the Committee on Climate Change's (CCC) politely brutal critique of the manner in which the government opted to obliterate long-standing green policies without having replacements lined up fueled impressions there has been "a weakening of the policy framework" leaves no doubt it shares the concerns of both the business and NGO community.
As the CCC letter makes plain today, there is only so much longer the government can keep parroting the same line about its desire to deliver cost effective decarbonisation in response to this largely justified criticism. Ministers need to urgently deliver their new strategy and hope it is ambitious and credible enough to help business leaders forget about the way in which the transition from the previous government's climate policy framework to this government's policy framework has risked annihilating investor confidence for a generation.
The problem is there are worrying indications the new strategy will struggle to fully address the concerns of the CCC, or anyone else for that matter. Reading between the lines of the policy proposals and rhetoric coming out of the Treasury and DECC in recent months it appears the government is edging towards a new decarbonisation strategy that rests heavily on unproven UK domestic gas reserves, unproven carbon capture technology, unproven and costly new nuclear projects, scaled back renewables deployment, well-meaning but underfunded attempts to bolster energy efficiency, and an ideological resistance to many of the standards, safeguards, incentives, and infrastructure funding that is now driving low carbon development in many other leading economies.
The government may have a surprise up its sleeve and there is little doubt Amber Rudd and her team are serious when they say they want to ensure the UK lives up to its climate change commitments while honouring the tight spending restrictions the Treasury has imposed upon it. But Number 11's seemingly implacable resistance to the idea that there are huge hidden costs attached to the failure to invest now in building low carbon infrastructure and competitive clean tech industries means it is highly unlikely the relatively modest sums of funding that are needed to ease the impact of the recent policy shake up on the green economy will be forthcoming. Rudd may stitch together a workable climate and energy strategy, but the chances of it delivering the game-changing ambition that is required to truly make the UK a clean tech leader appear slim.
All of which makes Gore's decision to target his call for the UK to return to its leadership position on climate change directly at the country's leader particularly pertinent. Asked this morning about the influence of George Osborne over climate policy, Gore rather cheekily observed that "Cameron is your Prime Minister, right?"
It is a fair question given the Prime Minister's near complete public absence from the debate on an issue he has said represents one of the biggest long term threats facing the UK.
Cameron's personal commitment to environmental issues is well known, so much so that there was little surprise recently when he selected Dr Seuss' green fable The Lorax as his favourite children's book. But his failure to translate this theoretical interest in environmental issues into a concerted attempt to use his position to make the economic and moral case for action on climate change in the way Angela Merkel and Barack Obama have done in recent years remains one of the biggest disappointments of his five and a bit years at Number 10.
Meanwhile, his failure to publicly engage with the detail of climate and energy policy, beyond the occasional Liaison Committee appearance, has further fuelled the impression the Treasury is being allowed to impose its narrow, short term analysis on every energy and climate policy decision, regardless of the long term climate and air pollution impacts.
A Prime Minister truly committed to delivering a green economic and climate change legacy in his final few years in office could revitalise the government's climate strategy overnight, if he chose to do so.
On winning his surprise election victory Cameron had the political capital to deliver on his manifesto commitment to deliver cost effective decarbonisation in a way that did not smash business confidence right across the energy sector. He could have promised a review of policies that would phase out flawed measures while introducing new approaches. He could have pursued shale gas development in a way that recognised the need for strong climate safeguards. He could have used the Green Investment Bank to mobilise greater levels of much needed investment. He could have acknowledged the global revolution that is happening in the renewables industry and made the case for a small amount of bridging funding to help the UK sector reach cost competitiveness. He could have pushed for a new nuclear strategy that introduced much needed competition and pushed down excessive costs. And he could have made infrastructure-funded energy efficiency upgrades a key part of his pitch to revive UK productivity.
Most importantly, he could have made a strong economic, commercial, and ethical argument for climate action, based on the way in which clean technologies will boost UK productivity and drive much needed investment in modern infrastructure - an argument that would make it far harder for his successor to unstitch his environmental legacy. He could have said we have led the world in the development of cost effective clean energy and it would be perverse in the extreme to demolish this massive commercial opportunity at this late stage.
The fact Cameron has failed, so far, to do any of these things is, as Gore says, puzzling.
The hope for the UK's green economy is that it is not too late for the Prime Minister to revive his climate leadership and deliver the ambitious, cost effective decarbonisation policy he promised. The question is does he want to demonstrate this leadership, or will he wait until he is out of office to reflect on the wisdom of the Lorax's warning about the inevitable collapse of economies where environmental stewardship is neglected?
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