He may be public enemy number one for environmentalists, but by default or design the chancellor is overseeing the rapid growth of the green economy
For many green businesses and NGOs, chancellor George Osborne is public enemy number one. He is the torcher of environmental protections, the salvation of carbon-intensive polluters, the arch-apologist for the high carbon growth path, and the single most significant barrier to the development of a low-carbon economy in the UK.
There is plenty of evidence to support this characterisation.
Most notably, last autumn Osborne waved a red rag at the green movement with his casual dismissal of the green economy and environmental regulations. In vowing to ensure the UK goes no faster than the rest of the EU in its pursuit of decarbonisation and lamenting the "ridiculous costs" and "burdens" that green regulations place on businesses, Osborne sent environmental campaigners around the country into paroxysms of rage.
Add in the £200m of support promised to energy intensive industries, the eye-watering cuts imposed on Defra's budget, the failure to find additional cash to resolve the feed-in tariff crisis, the complete lack of movement on promised green taxes, the refusal to even acknowledge the five per cent growth achieved by the low-carbon economy and, worst of all, the threatened reforms to environmental habitat and planning rules that have left many campaigners fearing next week's budget will represent a Black Wednesday for the countryside, and you can see why Osborne is perceived as the green movement's mortal enemy.
The consensus is that Osborne is a hostage of conventional Treasury and free market thinking on the environment, regarding green growth as at best a marginal activity and at worst a chimera, while clinging to the belief that cutting red tape and leaving the market to its own devices will deliver growth and solve existential social and environmental problems. If it were not for the Lib Dems and David Cameron's behind-the-scenes support for the green economy, so the argument goes, Osborne would be moving faster and harder in his efforts to dismantle environmental protections and sideline green industries.
And yet this characterisation has always struck me as being both overly simplistic and counterproductive.
In fact, without wishing to be wilfully provocative it is possible to construct a convincing argument that Osborne is the greenest chancellor in recent history.
It might be a title akin to being named tallest dwarf, but it is clear that Osborne has delivered more high-profile green policies than many of his predecessors. Lords Lawson and Lamont treated environmental issues with little more than disdain, while Alistair Darling spent so much of his time wrestling with the survival of the financial system that he had little time left for saving the planet. Gordon Brown commissioned the influential Stern Review into the economics of climate change, provided funding to the Carbon Trust and other green bodies, launched the Department of Energy and Climate Change once he was in Number 10, and has long been a vocal supporter of international action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But he also oversaw boom years during which the proportion of environmental taxation fell, the UK singularly failed to climb from the foot of the EU's renewable energy league table, and any attempt to raise fuel levies was ditched as soon as the Daily Mail complained.
In contrast, Osborne already has a lengthy list of green achievements, even if the desire to appeal to the right wing of his party in preparation for a future leadership bid means he rarely mentions them.
Like it or not, Osborne will be the chancellor that launches the Green Investment Bank, the UK's carbon floor price, the Green Deal energy efficiency scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive and the latest round of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) funding. He is also the chancellor that gave DECC one of the smallest budget cuts in Whitehall and turned the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) scheme into a £700m a year corporate carbon tax. For a chancellor who is widely regarded as an old school, anti-green, low-tax Conservative he has, through the CRC and the imminent carbon floor price, effectively imposed two major carbon taxes on UK businesses.
I am not pretending there are not countless caveats attached to this list of achievements, nor that they are sufficient given the scale of the challenge and opportunity presented by the low-carbon economy. Based on current plans the Green Investment Bank will be badly under-powered, the Green Deal and RHI face numerous problems with customer adoption, CCS funding is coming too late, DECC's budget is still too small, and both the CRC and the carbon floor price are complex and facing valid questions about their efficacy.
A huge amount now rests on next week's budget, but while headlines will be dominated by the on-going row over tax policy and environmentalists will no doubt slam any rolling back of countryside protection rules, it remains possible there will also be a flurry of positive announcements for the green economy. Businesses are eagerly awaiting more details on the £1bn CCS funding, the £250m promised to support the Green Deal, the long-running electricity market reforms, and changes to planning rules that could provide a boost to renewable energy projects. A decision is also imminent on mandatory carbon reporting and there have been whispers that the £200m intended to help energy-intensive firms cope with the carbon floor price could be targeted in a manner that drives investment in energy efficiency improvements.
When you look at what Osborne has actually done, rather than what he has said, it becomes clear he is not quite the anti-green villain of caricature. So what is going on? The answer is politics. It is hardly a new observation that Osborne is the most intensely political animal in the government. He will do whatever it takes to gain political advantage and as such is positioning himself to simultaneously appeal to those backbenchers and Tory voters sceptical of the green agenda, while also building up a checklist of green policies and investments that will allow him to credibly claim he is supporting the low-carbon economy.
It is a clever tactic: as the on-going debate over green policy plays out Osborne can ultimately join whichever side offers the most political gain. Be in no doubt, he would ditch renewable subsidies tomorrow if he thought a new dash for gas would play well in marginal seats, just as he would crank up support for clean energy if there was evidence there were votes in it.
This is why simply characterising Osborne as an opponent of the green agenda is so counter-productive for green businesses. Yes, Osborne is advised by Treasury mandarins who are hostile to the low-carbon economy. Yes, he only supports green firms when it suits him. Yes, he is happy to deploy damaging rhetoric that undermines green investor confidence. But despite all that he has also instigated or authorised a significant number of policies that promise to drive the development of the low-carbon economy, not least through his support for the concept of carbon pricing.
I am painfully aware this article could come back to haunt me; that with a parliamentary majority Osborne might turn out to be the chancellor who props up declining fossil fuel industries while undermining green technologies at every turn. I could even come to regret it next Wednesday if the chancellor has been listening too closely to those fossil fuel industry lobbyists orchestrating the ridiculously overblown and inaccurate attacks on renewable energy subsidies. But it strikes me that despite his crass and short-sighted rhetoric, it is still unclear which way Osborne will jump on the topic of the green economy. The hostile approach taken by many green NGOs and businesses threatens to push him into the arms of the climate sceptic dinosaurs on his backbenches, just at the time when some constructive lobbying could convince him of the merits of green growth.
And if that is not enough to convince green leaders to take a slightly more conciliatory approach (while continuing to criticise those policies that genuinely threaten green growth), reflect on this: regardless what you think of his personality or politics, by default or design George Osborne will be the chancellor that oversees the most rapid growth to date of the UK's green economy. It will be a damn sight easier for all concerned if the caricatures are ditched and justified criticism is combined with constructive efforts to work together.
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