Friday, 18 March 2011

The 'Greenest Government Ever'?

LibDem environment minister Chris Huhne recently announced the government's new energy agenda.

It was hailed by Prime Minister David Cameron as a sign that the coalition would be 'the greenest government ever'.

OK, so let's look at these claims in a bit closer detail.

Chris Huhne MPImage by David Spender via FlickrYou can read Chris Huhne's speech in full here.

Highlights included a green investment bank, introduction of floor rates for carbon trading, funding for 1000 'green deal' apprenticeships, zero-carbon housing standards, introduction of a strategy for electric car infrastructure, reforms to home generation feed-in tariffs and additional departmental measures to allow NGO's to monitor government progress.

Huhne's main line of argument was to reduce dependency on oil and fossil fuel consumption, on the one side to prevent economic insecurity stemming from near-term price spikes in the wake of geo-political uncertainty (such as in Libya) and the longer term concern of limited supplies, while on the other to reduce carbon output and be seen as good environmental guardians.

However only a few days later and with the Japanese earthquake causing ruptures in nuclear reactors he was forced to address Britain's continuing support for nuclear fuel and answer why he hadn't followed the lead of Germany where immediate shut-downs were made and a 3-month moratorium on nuclear power was called (though the electoral strength of the anti-atomic lobby heading into elections probably had more to do with that given Germany's distance from active tectonic boundaries).

According to one analysis Huhne's explanation to party activists at last weekend's LibDem spring conference in Sheffield showed he is responding positively to concerns. As he said, "safety is absolutely the top priority for us in all our energy sources. Safety is the nuclear industry's first priority."

Most LibDems tend to be cautiously realistic about nuclear power (and weapons), arguing any hasty or unilateral pull-out is undesirable as it would destabilise the supply chain relationships and have wide-reaching consequences, although thit should remain the medium-to-long term ambition. For the time being, at least, nuclear remains part of the mix.

Despite the good proposals they are perhaps more modest than they might have been.

On the private side subsidies for solar microgenerators below 50 kilowatts have been cut (primarily because minimal incentive is required and the current scheme was proving too successful). Some specialist environmental advisory services have also been merged.

On the business side the Green Investment Bank has had some of it's envisaged functions peeled off, while the government decided not to compel greater provision of information to consumers through better labelling - something the CBI is now encouraging voluntarily.

And Huhne hit the headlines with the declaration that 250,000 new jobs would be created by 2030 through greening the economy.

This is somewhat more difficult to measure, although the left-leaning Work Foundation suggests 3 scenarios how this could happen, including a low-carbon implementation sector, manufacturing-led growth in low carbon activities and a low carbon services-led sector.

But stronger criticism of the claims were made regarding efforts regarding house-building, an area dominated by large corporate insterests.

Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors president Robert Peto spoke out against the overcomplicated and inconsistent nature of environmental legislation which many found off-putting and easily became subbordinated into wider government spending plans.

As Michael McCarthy explains in The Independent, responsibility for environment is split between climate policy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change under LibDem Chris Huhne and other policy at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs under Conservative Caroline Spellman.

The effect of this can be more clearly seen when we remember Caroline Spellman was responsible for the botched and widely derrided consultation to privatise Forestry Commision woodlands.

So clearly this government isn't as friendly to the environment as it could be, or indeed claims, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of positives to be taken out of the recent proposals.

Maybe Cameron simply lapsed into an error of language when he said his would be 'the greenest government ever', and he should really have said it was 'the greenest government yet' - because activists in opposing parties certainly won't be passified if he remains there in perpetuity!

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