In responding to the UKIP threat by attacking wind farms, the Conservatives risk ending up with an incoherent energy strategy
What are the Tories thinking? I ask not as an incredulous environmental campaigner or green investor, even if the angry rhetorical questions being asked as to how the Conservatives can countenance blocking one of the UK's cheapest forms of domestic clean energy at a time when an increasingly hostile foreign power is using energy supplies as a weapon are entirely justified. No, my question is not rhetorical. What are the Tories thinking? Or, more specifically, what is the Conservative strategy for decarbonisation post-2015?
Last week's announcement by Energy Minister Michael Fallon that a Conservative government would end subsidies for new wind farms and further tighten planning rules for turbines may be deeply frustrating for environmentalists and energy investors. It may also be taken as conclusive evidence of our Prime Minister's political hypocrisy and lack of defining values. But the proposal for an effective moratorium on new onshore wind farm development, the alleged talk of 'green crap' within Number 10, and the conversion of cabinet ministers into lobbyists for the shale gas industry is simply democracy in action.
It may represent a contradiction of much of what the Conservatives stood for going into the last election, but the rise of UKIP means the electoral plates have shifted and as such the party is perfectly entitled to go into next year's election promising to renounce its recent past, bring the curtain down on UK onshore wind farm development, and generally dilute green policies.
We can argue about whether issues of long-term import to national security and prosperity really should be decided by what electoral strategists think will play best with the couple of hundred thousand swing voters in marginal seats. But constitutional reform is once again off the political agenda and hoping for political leaders who are willing to put the national interest ahead of their electoral concerns is like hoping for a patient football club chairman - a nice idea, but it is never going to happen.
We can also argue about whether a vote for the Conservatives at the next election really is a vote against onshore wind, given polling shows strong support for renewables across supporters of all parties. But our electoral system does not allow for referenda on every issue and as such anyone wanting to vote Tory because they support the party's "long term economic plan" or promised EU referendum will also have to vote against the expansion of one of the most cost effective forms of renewables, even if they are privately in favour of wind farms.
However, the fact remains the Tories have evidently done the electoral maths and decided a strategy of all out attack towards onshore wind farms accompanied by barely concealed hostility towards other green issues could prove a winner. It is now up to voters to prove whether these calculations are accurate or not (encouragingly the response by Labour and the Lib Dem's to the latest Tory attack on wind farms suggests they are equally convinced there are votes in publicly supporting renewable energy).
However, if the Tories are perfectly entitled to embrace an anti-wind farm strategy, what is harder to justify to either voters or businesses is a failure to explain how this new energy policy fits into a wider decarbonisation strategy.
UKIP's anti-renewables stance at least has the benefit of being consistent with a scientifically illiterate dismissal of climate change risks, but the Conservative's have no such luxury. Barring a full blown takeover by the party's "Tea Party tendency", the Conservatives are unlikely to go into the next election promising to repeal the Climate Change Act, just as David Cameron will find it hard to campaign by disowning his recent assessment of climate change as one of the biggest threats facing the UK. To do so would condemn one of the UK's great political parties to previously unexplored Faragian levels of cynicism and hypocrisy.
As a result, if the Tories want to make a virtual moratorium on new onshore wind farms and the creation of a giant shale gas industry the central planks of their energy strategy then they also need to explain how this approach fits into a long term decarbonisation strategy for the rest of this decade and beyond.
Simply stating, as Michael Fallon did last week, that the UK has enough renewables in the pipeline to meet its 2020 targets is not good enough. Such an approach ignores the central message of the IPCC report - namely that early action to cut emissions is more cost effective than delayed action - and will only push up energy bills by increasing the UK's reliance on more costly forms of low carbon energy.
There has been vague talk in Conservative circles of solar and offshore wind energy playing a bigger role in the UK's energy mix during the second half of the decade to compensate for less onshore wind energy coming online. There has been vague talk from the Prime Minister of carbon capture and storage playing a crucial role in cutting emissions through the 2020s. There has also been vague talk of an increase focus on energy efficiency, even if it is contradicted by Number 10's disgraceful decision to water down existing energy efficiency policies in pursuit of a short term and marginal reduction in bills. However, none of these mooted ideas could seriously be described as a comprehensive decarbonisation strategy, let alone a means of compensating for the emissions that would result from ending onshore wind farm development and ramping up fracking activity.
The Conservative's have form in this area. Last year, they attacked Labour's decision to support the early adoption of a decarbonisation target for the power sector for 2030, using deeply suspect calculations from Conservative HQ to argue that the decarbonisation target Labour voted for would push bills up £125 by 2030. But the Tories then failed to explain how they would decarbonise and meet the requirements of the Climate Change Act at a lower cost. For what it is worth, the independent Committee on Climate Change maintained, and still maintains, that a decarbonisation target for the power sector represents the most cost effective way for the UK to meet its carbon targets throughout the 2020s.
Fallon and co can propose an end to new onshore wind farms if they want to, but if they want to be taken seriously on energy policy, if they want to avoid charges of rank hypocrisy on green issues, and if they want to be regarded as responsible leaders on climate change, then they need to clearly explain what their alternative decarbonisation and climate change strategy looks like. We expect manifestos and policy commitments to be budgeted from a financial perspective, but in an age of climate change they need to be budgeted from a carbon perspective too. If a party wants to weaken efforts to cut emissions in one area they need to clearly explain how they will strengthen efforts in another area.
As such, the Conservatives need to explain why they want to effectively end development of new onshore wind farms and why aesthetic considerations trump all else. They need to explain what other forms of clean energy they will increasingly rely on from 2015 onwards and what the cost implications are of shifting the focus towards more expensive energy sources (if Labour has any sense it is doing the maths right now and preparing an attack ad pointing out how much Tory opposition to wind farms will add to consumer bills). They need to explain how they plan to improve UK energy efficiency and live up to the Prime Minister's pledge to make the UK one of the most efficient countries in Europe, even after the self-same Prime Minister was the main driver behind weakening existing efficiency policies. They need to explain how shale gas and CCS fit into a modern low carbon economy, and they need to explain what role they see for nuclear power. They need to explain how they plan to increase spending on climate adaptation in an era of ongoing public sector spending cuts. And, thanks to the confusing and contradictory messages coming from senior Conservative politicians, they need to publicly confirm whether they really do remain committed to decarbonisation.
Failure to do so would leave voters, business leaders, and investors with no choice but to conclude the Prime Minister was not being serious when he said he was serious about tackling climate change and leading the greenest government ever, just as they will also have to conclude that he cares more about pandering to the right wing of his party than acting in the long term interests of the country. You expect this kind of inconsistent policy confusion from UKIP - an apparently non-racist party that repeatedly puts forward racist candidates, while espousing environmental policies that appear to be sourced from internet trolls - but a party of government is held to higher standards.
So what is it going to be? Are we going to see the unveiling of a credible alternative Conservative decarbonisation strategy? Or are we going to see the torching of Tory green credentials and an election fought on anti-environmental spin that undermines investment, increases energy costs, and damages national security? The election may still be a year away, but we need to know what the Tories are thinking.