Manifestos promise welcome reboot for green economy

James Murray
Manifestos promise welcome reboot for green economy

The Conservative manifesto contains plenty of flaws, but like all the main parties policy plans it promises a significant boost for green businesses

It is time to celebrate. No, really, bear with me on this, it is.

All the main parties have released their manifestos and we can now be certain that this most dispiriting and monotonous of elections will deliver a significant green lining. The UK's cross party consensus on climate action has held. All the main parties accept climate action is essential and are committed to delivering it. The level of ambition and the precise policy mechanisms proposed may vary, but the direction of travel is clear. The only party whose official stance is a full embrace of aggressive climate scepticism is UKIP - the latest poll puts them on two per cent.

None of this is to be sniffed at. If you look at the other key players in the Anglosphere - the US, Australia, Canada - you can see the immense damage that can be wreaked when the political consensus on tackling the biggest long term existential challenge of the era breaks down.

It is no secret that several of the leading lights of the Brexit campaign - the very people who now think, rightly or wrongly, that they are the dominant force in British politics - long to pursue the fossil fuelled, climate sceptic economic model now offered by Trump. In modern history, this climate sceptic clique has never had a team at Number 10 more philosophically amenable to their deeply flawed arguments and short termist - and yet once again their headline proposals have been rejected.

At a time when Number 10's political strategy is one of open antagonism towards anything that smacks of liberal, 'citizen of nowhere', elitism, this is a manifesto that could have quite easily promised a review of the Climate Change Act, pledged to torch green levies, and stepped back to enjoy the applause from the right wing press. Instead, it revived plans for onshore wind farms.

The Labour, Lib Dem, and Green manifestos are, if anything, even more encouraging for the green economy, promising a faster pace of decarbonisation, generally higher levels of investment in clean technologies, and a more responsible approach to curbing fossil fuel investment, most notably through a ban on fracking.

The Lib Dem vision is particularly eye-catching. They may be failing to engineer the hoped-for bounce in the polls, but their green policies bear all the hall-marks of recent government experience and the canny recognition that smaller parties can act as outriders for their larger rivals. Much of the plan is similar to that put forward by Labour, but the packaging of ambitious environmental policies as Five Green Acts makes them more easily digestable. Meanwhile, headline-grabbing proposals such as a ban on diesel cars and vans by 2025, a levy on disposable coffee cups, and a Zero Carbon Britain Act are precisely the kind of measures that prove popular before being shamelessly nicked by larcenous political rivals with the power to make them happen - yes, Prime Minister, we're looking at you.

However, for green businesses and investors it is the Conservative manifesto that requires the closest reading. After all, barring the kind of polling shock that would force every pollster in the country into early retirement, this is the agenda of the next government.  

Any green business willing to look past the manifesto's obvious flaws can find plenty of encouraging developments. Following a year when Westminster's energy and climate thinking has largely trod water, the Conservative's plans would restore some welcome forward momentum on a host of fronts.

For example, the promise to support onshore wind farms on Scottish islands deliberately leaves the door open for new wind farms in mainland Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland too. The review of energy costs will almost certainly provide the political cover for a wider revival of onshore wind and potentially solar too, given all the evidence suggests such projects now offer the lowest cost form of new energy generation. Will the government be able to resist the temptation to deliver over a gigawatt of new clean power with virtually no impact on the clean energy spending cap?

The pledge to introduce a new fund for industrial energy efficiency is a similarly big deal, and while details on the level of funding are sketchy the potential for big emissions and productivity savings are obvious. The promise of a new approach to domestic energy efficiency is also welcome, and while the detail and level of ambition is currently too low it will require the next government to answer questions about how it plans to improve energy-saving grant schemes. The door has been re-opened for the long-running campaign to improve the UK's energy efficiency. 

The Conservative's sizeable commitments to innovation and R&D funding, featuring specific shout outs for electric vehicles, batteries, and smart grids, are also hugely welcome. The target to make every car and van zero emission by 2050 may be laughably unambitious given the pace of development in the automotive sector, but the promise of funding for clean transport infrastructure, including rail electrification, green buses, and cycling networks, should help pull forward the date at which an ultra-low emission transport system is delivered.

Finally, the promise of an intriguingly titled "agri-environment system" of subsidies for the farming community suggests the compelling argument for only handing out payments in returns for environmental services is gaining traction in Number 10.

Tie these various commitments together and you can see credible pillars for the government's eagerly anticipated and still yet to be released Clean Growth Plan. There is plenty for green businesses to get excited about.  

But what of those obvious flaws? Sadly, they are considerable and wide-ranging. The Conservative's ignoble and illegal response to the air pollution crisis continues with the topic not meriting a mention in the manifesto. Similarly, there are sizeable holes where more information on green heating, nuclear, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, and aviation emissions should be. The depressingly well-established Conservative tradition of saying nothing of interest about waste and the circular economy continues.

At the same time, the Tory love-in with fracking shows no signs of dissipating with a promise to try and reassure the public about the technology, before then simply forcing projects through the planning system if that doesn't work. There is not even the vaguest flicker of recognition towards the carbon bubble that could redefine the fossil fuel industry and the financial markets over the next five years. And there is no mention of the net zero carbon legislation that Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom promised last year as part of the UK's commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Then, of course, there is Brexit. All the Conservatives' grand policy plans could come crashing down if they fail to deliver the seemingly impossible 'best of both worlds' Brexit the Prime Minister is pursuing. The folly of leaving Euratom, trying to engineer a dauntingly complex Great Repeal Bill inside 18 months, limiting immigration at a time of near full employment, and jeopardising the UK's export markets is yet to be fully felt.

Most of all though, there is the nagging sense that climate action remains a second tier issue, that the urgency and focus this existential crisis requires is still not embedded within the Party's leadership. That you can frame a manifesto as addressing "Five Giant Challenges" and not mention the biggest long term challenge of all is not exactly surprising given everything we know about May's team and target audience, but it remains a remarkable dereliction of duty. At the risk of repeating myself, the scale and urgency of the climate crisis means the Conservatives' climate programme is a Curate's Egg in the truest sense - it has good parts and bad parts, but that means it is entirely bad egg.

It is also only fair to note the green proposals put forward by both Labour and the Lib Dems are considerably more ambitious, even if the polls suggest the limit of ambition for their manifestos is to shift the Overton Window a few more inches towards a fully decarbonised economy. 

However, with those caveats firmly in place, the Conservative manifesto and its broad commitment to decarbonisation has to be appreciated as a welcome step in the right direction for UK politics and policy.

There are plenty of battles still to win. The threat to effective green policies post-Brexit remains profound, the Clean Growth Plan is yet to secure the final sign-off and full spectrum funding it needs, and a reshuffle could move the more sensible voices in the cabinet from their current positions of influence. It is perhaps also worth noting that the commitment to the Climate Change Act is made in the context of the 2050 goal to cut emissions 80 per cent - the failure to mention more medium term goals will leave some environmental campaigners feeling twitchy.

But beneath the headlines the Conservative manifesto clearly indicates that the long-running battle within the party is continuing to shift in favour of those who wish to deliver decarbonisation at a considerable pace, primarily through the use of the most cost effective renewables and a new wave of innovative and exciting clean technologies. Those Conservatives who regard climate action as a core component of a "strong and stable" offer to the country may not be making much noise about the progress that is being made, but they retain influence.

And that, at least, is worth celebrating.

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