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A bleak outlook for Britain's environment: Cairn Toul from the Pools of Dee, Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms. The sub-Arctic biodiversity of the mountains is at risk from warming climate. Photo: Ted and Jen via Flickr (CC BY).
A bleak outlook for Britain's environment: Cairn Toul from the Pools of Dee, Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms. The sub-Arctic biodiversity of the mountains is at risk from warming climate. Photo: Ted and Jen via Flickr (CC BY).
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The greenest government ever? By no stretch of the imagination

Jonathon Porritt

22nd June 2015

The previous government came in on a bold promise to be the 'greenest ever', writes Jonathon Porritt. But what we got was a shameful record of ideologically driven policies that promoted fossil fuels, undermined action on climate, obsessed over nuclear power, did nothing to arrest the decline in the nation's wildlife and biodiversity - and suggest even worse to come.

It's a disturbing and often shameful record, and it's important to call out those politicians responsible for such a state of affairs. If the same factors obtain over the next five years, it will be an out-and-out disaster for the environment by 2020.

Within a few days of taking office in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron declared his ambition that his newly-formed Coalition Government should be "the greenest government ever".

So, to what degree did the Coalition Government deliver on that promise over the last five years?

My conclusion is that by no stretch of the imagination was the Coalition Government was 'the greenest government ever'.

In all the most relevant policy areas (natural environment, energy, climate change, air pollution, infrastructure and resource efficiency), what we see is a consistent picture of under-performance and ideologically-driven backsliding.

Hopes were high back in 2010. In opposition, David Cameron had done a lot to 'decontaminate' the Tory brand by emphasising his concerns about climate change and other green issues. This seemed to go deeper than just hugging the odd husky.

Commentators and NGOs also assumed that having the Lib Dems in the Coalition Government would greatly enhance the likelihood of proactive and consistent engagement on environmental issues.

Sorely disappointed - poor leadership in both halves of the Coalition

We've all been sorely disappointed on that score. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was clearly as detached from the whole green agenda as the Prime Minister himself.

Once Chris Huhne was gone, leadership for the Lib Dems defaulted to Ed Davey and Simon Hughes - both very nice people, but utterly incapable of dealing with a majority of unreconstructed Tory Ministers in the government, let alone with the Treasury.

The true extent of this chronic leadership vacuum was revealed in November 2013. At the height of the scandal of yet another unjustified price hike from the Big Six energy companies, The Sun quoted a senior and reliable source in the Conservative Party that the PM wanted "to get rid of all the green crap".

This claim has never been categorically denied by David Cameron, and he certainly never did anything to counter George Osborne's ongoing commentary that 'the environment' represents an inconvenient impediment to growth and prosperity.

This overarching view was encapsulated early on in Osborne's Party Conference speech in 2011: "We're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business."

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

Defra is now one of the weakest departments in Whitehall, hollowed out by savage cuts (already 20%, and up to 25% by the end of this financial year), and chronically poor leadership.

In that respect, we saw a progressive descent from a reasonably well-intentioned Secretary of State in Caroline Spelman, to one of the worst Secretaries of State Defra has ever had (in Owen Paterson), to the ill-informed and ineffectual Liz Truss. It is not encouraging that David Cameron has confirmed Liz Truss as Secretary of State at Defra in his new Cabinet.

All the notionally independent agencies reporting to Defra (including the Environment Agency and Natural England) have had their budgets slashed - and have completely lost the will to stand up against Ministers. These are now client agencies of government, wholly captured by the current "small state" ideology.

Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)

DCLG is undoubtedly a strong contender for the worst department in Whitehall from an environmental point of view - as was personally masterminded by former Secretary of State Eric Pickles.

As Minister responsible for planning, Eric Pickles had endless opportunities to push through consistent and transparent policy on helping deliver a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately, he did exactly the opposite.

For instance, he constantly watered down the goal of making new homes as carbon-efficient as possible, set out to exempt housebuilders from their obligation to build zero-carbon homes, and sought to unpick provisions in the 2011 Energy Act that make it illegal for landlords to rent out commercial or domestic properties that fail to meet minimum performance standards.

He even attacked the use of Display Energy Certificates in 58,000 public buildings, and attempted to eliminate them altogether.

Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)

This is something of a 'curate's egg' story. Good things have been done, but nothing like as much as could and should have been done. And some truly absurd decisions have been taken. Ed Davey was almost universally recognised as a Secretary of State with his 'heart in the right place', but the record is really not a good one.

Many believe that DECC is now so subservient to the interests (and lobbying demands) of the Big Six energy companies as to be incapable of delivering policies that will deliver the UK's three high-level objectives: energy security; energy affordability; low carbon.

Its record on energy efficiency has been particularly woeful. On both ECO (the Energy Company Obligation) and the Green Deal, badly-designed schemes were pursued with little or no serious intent. Targets have been so comprehensively missed as to leave the entire energy efficiency agenda even more vulnerable to Treasury's short-termist cost-cutting.

The Treasury - the heart of darkness?

Almost all the blocked roads identified in this report are blocked primarily because of Treasury and, more particularly, because of George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Of all the Ministers in the Coalition Government, it's George Osborne who stands most directly accused of outright deceit in terms of his positioning before the last General Election in 2010 when compared with what he actually did as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Here's what he said in 2009:

"I want a Conservative Treasury to be in the lead of developing the low-carbon economy and financing a green recovery. I see in this green recovery not just the fight against climate change, but the fight for jobs, the fight for new industry, the fight for lower family energy bills, and the fight for less wasteful government. If I become Chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe."

Unfortunately, no Minister did more to hold back business, discourage investment, destroy jobs and misuse public money than George Osborne. And nobody was too surprised at the fact that his 2015 Election rhetoric was very different from that of 2010, with only the most tokenistic of references to the green economy or climate change.

Climate change

UK electors have just gone through yet another entire Election campaign with little more than a few (rapidly closed-down) mentions of climate change from the Green Party.

Over the last five years, the Climate Change Act was staunchly defended by all Lib Dems in ministerial office, most notably by Chris Huhne and then by Ed Davey. The Tories were far more ambivalent about it right from the start, and there were more than a hundred Tory back-benchers in the last parliament who wanted to see it repealed. As well as various Tory Secretaries of State over the last five years - not least Owen Paterson and Eric Pickles.

On balance, it's fair to say that its performance on climate change over the whole five-year period has been adequate, if inconsistent and wholly uninspiring in terms of making the case for low-carbon wealth creation to UK citizens.

Energy efficiency and demand management

As in so many priority areas, hopes were initially high for a step-change in our approach to energy efficiency, based on the simple but all-important proposition that the cheapest, safest and most secure form of energy is that which is not consumed. This was properly recognised in the Coalition Agreement of May 2010, where energy efficiency was given a lot of prominence.

In 2012, the Prime Minister pledged to make the UK "one of the most energy-efficient countries in Europe", and he himself was clearly very committed to that ambition in his first year in office. He immediately set a target for a 10% reduction in energy consumption for all government departments, and every single department delivered.

But when the media showed no interest in this achievement, he seemed to lose interest too; a much lower target was set for the rest of the parliament, and no-one has even bothered to follow up to see what has happened since then.

Fossil fuels

Transitioning to "a competitive, energy-efficient, low-carbon economy" demands one thing above all else: reducing our dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) over as short a period of time as is feasible.

But this is absolutely not what has happened over the last five years. In its helpful report, 'The Westminster Parties' Green Record', Friends of the Earth succinctly concludes its section on coal and climate change as follows: "The Conservatives have consistently put fossil fuels ahead of decarbonisation."

The Coalition Government's most egregious pro-fossil fuel interventions have been in the area of fracking. Unsurprisingly, it was George Osborne who set the tone by announcing that the Coalition Government would be "going all out" to support fracking in every way it possibly could, introducing extraordinarily generous tax allowances for companies getting into exploration in the 2014 Budget.

It also used the passage of the Infrastructure Bill to ensure that the views of local communities could be ignored in any planning process regarding new fracking developments.

Renewables

The Conservative Party specifically cited its performance on renewables as part of its claim to being "the greenest government ever". This claim bears little scrutiny. The final figures for 2014 are still not available, but in 2013:

  • In renewable electricity, the UK was in 18th place out of the 28 countries in the EU league table.
  • In renewable energy, the UK was in 25th place out of the 28 countries in the EU league table, with only Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands below us.


There is, however, one area where we hold an undisputed lead over every other country in the EU - and indeed across the world. And that's in the offshore wind sector. The Coalition Government did a really good job here, building a reasonably secure supply chain for offshore wind, and in facilitating planning arrangements together with the Crown Estate.

It will be critically important to maintain this level of political priority and new investment. There are now 1,184 large turbines generating electricity offshore.

A mysterious obsession with nuclear power

Having persuaded the Lib Dems to sign up to the Conservatives' strong pro-nuclear position, the Coalition Government then spent the whole five years in office doing literally everything it could to launch a new nuclear programme here in the UK.

Its chosen vehicle was the French state-owned company, EdF, which is still hoping to build two new reactors at Hinkley Point. Two large Chinese companies have been brought into the consortium as co-investors to help cover the cost of what, on completion, would almost certainly end up as the two most expensive power stations anywhere in the world.

The deal has still not been finally confirmed, and it is by no means certain that it will go ahead at all. The combination of energy efficiency (as our 'first fuel'), plus renewables, plus smart local grids, now clearly provides a better alternative to large-scale nuclear generation.

But the fear is that the UK's remarkably resilient nuclear fantasy will continue to block these alternatives, to cause the misdirection of massive amounts of both public money and private sector investment, to confuse the general public, and generally set back our prospects for secure, affordable, low-carbon energy options here in the UK.

Protection of the natural environment

Environmental and conservation NGOs have come to expect very little from Defra. In the 'Nature Check 2013 Report' from the Wildlife and Countryside Link, the 44 affiliated organisations came to the following overall conclusion:

"We know that nature is in crisis. This crisis is harder to turn around with each year of delay or ineffectual action. There has been no step-change on leadership or delivery for the natural environment."

In 2013 'The State of Nature' report analysed population trends amongst 3,000 different species, and determined that almost 2,000 of them were in either poor shape or in decline, with one-tenth of all species at risk of going extinct. This is primarily because of modern farming practices: for example, there are now more than 40 million fewer breeding birds here in the UK than there were in the 1970s.

The Coalition Government showed little, if any, applied interest in addressing that crisis. The principal statutory agenda charged with responsibilities in this area - Natural England - is now half the size that it was back in 2010, and all but incapable of stemming the tide of continuing destruction from intensive agriculture and economic development in rural areas.

Forestry - the main priority was to sell of the national forest estate

The Coalition Government's true intentions (in terms of shrinking the size of the state and slashing all expenditure on the environment) was first revealed through its attempt in 2011/2012 to sell off the whole of the Public Forest Estate in England and Wales.

The UK's conservation and environmental NGOs either didn't understand the significance of these proposals, or were still taken in at that stage by Ministers' vague promises around the "greenest government ever" theme.

But whilst they stood idly by, a massive protest by local community groups and the general public saw off the Government's proposals, and led eventually to the dismissal of Caroline Spelman as Secretary of State.

Apart from a tokenistic commitment to plant a million trees by 2015, which would have happened anyway, nothing has been done to address the continuing and critical issues regarding the future of the Public Forest Estate.

The Green Investment Bank - a promise unfulfilled

The pledge to set up a Green Investment Bank was made by George Osborne in opposition, and it's one of the very few specific commitments that he has stayed true to. The UK is indeed one of the very countries to have a bank of this kind, and its potential contribution to securing a genuinely sustainable economy for the future is enormous.

However, pretty much everything that's happened over the last three years indicates that George Osborne would have much preferred it if his fiscal offspring had been strangled at birth. The prospective borrowing powers that were meant to kick in by 2015 were deferred in both of the last two Budgets, most recently in March this year.

This means that the full potential of the Green Investment Bank to stimulate funding for investment in the green economy remains seriously constrained. By December 2014, the Bank had made available only £200m of the original £1bn that had been earmarked for investment.

National Infrastructure Plan - driving aggressive development

Investment in infrastructure is one of the most critical ways in which any government's true intentions for the environment are revealed.

The assets created through those investments (in transport, utilities, power supply, grids and so on) last for decades, and will either support or undermine an overarching ambition to move towards a genuinely sustainable economy.

The Coalition Government's early plans here (released in 2012) were relatively benign from a sustainability perspective. But by the end of 2014 a very different picture had emerged.

A new National Infrastructure Plan in 2013 had already started to shift the pendulum back to much more conventional, carbon-intensive projects, and the Treasury's National Infrastructure Plan and 'infrastructure pipeline' of December 2014 confirmed that any earlier commitments to low-carbon infrastructure had been swept away.

Implications and conclusions

By no stretch of the imagination is it possible to look back over that five-year track record and make any kind of serious claim that the Coalition Government was "the greenest government ever". In fact, it's a disturbing and often shameful record, and it's important to call out those politicians primarily responsible for such a state of affairs.

That has huge implications for the next five years with a majority Conservative Government. Collective leadership will still come from the top, in terms of David Cameron and George Osborne, and delivery will still depend on a handful of Secretaries of State who have (for the most part) failed to inspire any kind of confidence in their commitment over the last five years.

Such a record also has huge implications for the UK's NGO community. No country in the world has a more experienced, diverse and potential influential and impactful Environment Movement than the UK, but with the best will in the world, one also has to point out that our own record over the last five years has not exactly been covered in glory.

Collectively, we've failed both to find ways of bringing out the best from a Coalition Government that could so easily have done so much more, and then to hold those politicians to account for consistent underperformance and ideologically-driven backsliding.

If the same factors obtain over the next five years, with every likelihood of reduced effectiveness on the part of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, intent on rebuilding themselves after such a calamitous Election result, then it will be an out-and-out disaster for the environment by 2020.

As the NGO community enters its own period of post-Election soul-searching and reflection, it serves little purpose obscuring the inevitability of such an outcome.

 


 

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future. His latest book, 'The World We Made' is available from phaidon.com/store.

Full report: 'The greenest government ever? By no stretch of the imagination'.

 

 

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