George Osborne has now delivered eight budgets, so the only surprising thing about his approach today towards the green economy is that anyone is surprised
The orchestrated pre-budget dance was precisely the same as usual, as green business groups and the remaining cadre of green Tories implored the Chancellor to protect environmental policies and recognise the benefits of low carbon investment.
The Chancellor's now familiar to the point of parody tropes were all present and correct as he quickly and confusingly glided over his perennially missed deficit targets, pulled a couple of headline grabbing rabbits out of his hat, appeased backbenchers with populist fuel duty freezes, laid into the opposition's political naivety, and tied it altogether with a memorable if meaningless rhetorical theme, this year opting for the honour to be found in protecting the ‘next generation' while getting a bit misty eyed about the threat to his children posed by the horror of fizzy drinks.
And of course, the short section on the environment and energy was there as well, precisely where it always is, just pass the halfway mark and to be dealt with in a curt three or four sentences that balance some good news for clean energy with some arguably even better news for fossil fuels.
Then we come to the routine reaction, as green groups condemn a Chancellor who seemingly sees nothing untoward about speaking for an hour about the importance of protecting the next generation from the mistakes we make today and barely mentioning climate change.
In reality, this Budget speech was actually significantly better for the green economy than previous Osborne interventions, both in terms of policy and politics. He resisted the urge to provocatively question the value of green business and legislation, as he has done in the past. He made no mention of fracking. He offered welcome additional (if still arguably inadequate) funding for offshore wind and flood defences. He streamlined carbon taxes without watering them down. He retained crucial carbon reporting rules. And he continued his low temperature love affair with emerging technologies, promising increased support for driverless cars, energy storage, smart grids, and wave energy.
In fact, the full acceptance of the National Infrastructure Commission's excellent report on smart energy suggests that after five years of banging its head against the intransigence of Treasury conservatism the message is finally starting to get through that the energy sector is being transformed by technology and decarbonisation is now a reality. The recent conversion of trade body Energy UK to this way of thinking will no doubt have given Treasury mandarins a further nudge in the right direction.
The tax breaks lavished on the North Sea oil and gas industry are a frustratingly retrograde step, but there are some modest signs around that the Whitehall establishment is finally starting to realise this is an industry in decline that no amount of tax breaks will save. Meanwhile, there appears to be a dawning realisation that clean energy is a coming force that really does have the potential to transform the way the UK economy operates.
That's the good news. The problem is you have to look very hard, and be extremely generous to the Chancellor to see it.
This budget may have been better and greener than some of Osborne's last efforts, but post Paris and with the UK's currently to be missed mid-2020 carbon targets looming the bar has been raised on what is acceptable from a Chancellor in a modern, decarbonising economy. Osborne may have tip-toed in the right direction, but his fixation with his triangulation template, his unnecessary tax breaks for fossil fuels, and his refusal to countenance even a modest increase in fuel duty at a time of low pump prices all combine to undermine much needed green investment and further dent already battered investor confidence.
Worst of all, the continued deferral of the crucial clarification on clean energy support post-2020 means growing green businesses that are of strategic importance to the UK will have to wait another six months for the policy certainty they require. The threat of an energy gap around 2020 is worsening and it is entirely of the government's own making.
Osborne has designs on becoming Prime Minister. If he is to ever make the journey to Number 10 he needs to recognise that there comes a point where politicians need to ditch the narrowly expedient political template and lead. In the wake of the Paris Summit and in a speech that promised to deliver for the next generation, this budget was one of those moments. Osborne could and should have offered clear and unequivocal support for the green economy that he will have to nurture and grow if he ever gets the top job. Instead, he muddied the water with a mix of green and dirty announcements. Again, the most depressing aspect of the whole affair is that anyone is surprised.