The Prime Minister promised to put green issues at the top of his agenda, but the delivery has been disappointing
The 2010 UK election yielded a coalition government, a fairly unusual experience for a country used to a Conservative or Labour-led administration.
Few were sure what this brave new dawn of cooperation between two parties with differing ideologies might bring.
Even fewer could have predicted that two days after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron would stroll over to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and promise a new era of environmental awareness from a British government.
Flanked by the Liberal Democrat’s then Secretary of State for energy and climate change Chris Huhne, Cameron hopped up onto a small soapbox and delivered the speech that has prefaced every interrogation of its failings on climate change.
“There is a fourth minister in this department who cares passionately about this agenda and that is me, the prime minister, right. I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” he said, adding that this would be “the greenest government ever”.
Cameron and Huhne were at DECC to formally announce the coalition’s pledge to cut the government’s carbon emissions by 10% in the first 12 months. In 2011 it said it had exceeded that target and cut 14%.
Speaking to RTCC last week, Huhne said he still had no idea whose idea the ‘greenest government ever’ phrase was, but stressed the importance both sides of the coalition had placed on green issues.
“I don’t know if anyone during the election used that tag, but probably it came from discussion between my special advisor and the PMs special advisors It wasn’t in the least bit surprising,” he said, adding that negotiations over green targets were “one of the easiest” aspects of the coalition talks.
The UK’s former climate change envoy John Ashton was another convinced by Cameron’s sincerity.
“I think he was serious when he talked about the Greenest Government Ever, and I went to a lot of trouble to try and understand whether it was a slogan or seriously intended, because I was being invited to carry on in my role as UK climate change envoy by the new Foreign Secretary William Hague,” he said.
The journalist and 10:10 campaigner Duncan Clark was standing next to Cameron during the speech.
“We were really excited – not because we thought Cameron was going to turn out to be a true green leader but because it was a big breakthrough for our small campaign group to get the government taking near-term action internally and encouraging others to do the same,” Clark told RTCC.
“It sounded like fairly standard political rhetoric to me so I took it with a big pinch of salt,” said Clark.
Prophetic words perhaps. But the bar was raised. The rod inserted in the back. Any deviation from these high of expectations would be used to beat the Coalition over the head with. It was a huge gamble.
A brave new world
So why make such a bold statement? Perhaps it’s hard to overstate the level of optimism that accompanied the new government – a true novelty for the UK.
The green agenda was a key element in Conservative plans to ‘detoxify’ the party’s image. In 2006 Cameron had travelled with the future climate minister Greg Barker to view melting Norwegian glaciers. It was said his wife Sam was – and is – a keen supporter of green issues.
It seems there were two major reasons behind Cameron’s words.
For one, green issues were hugely important for his coalition partner. It was one issue they could both agree on, and displays of unity were vital at this early stage of the relationship.
“At the time it seemed a normal event. It was obvious that one of the big links between the conservatives and the liberal democrats was the environment. It was one of things that really links their manifestos. I wasn’t surprised by that speech but I was excited by it,” said Alastair Harper, senior policy advisor at the Green Alliance environmental think tank.
“The conservative tradition has understood climate change as a generational responsibility to conserve. The liberal tradition sees it more as a barrier to freedom. That doesn’t mean that the action that it results in doesn’t coalesce.”
It was also a chance for Cameron to prove to voters Conservatives had changed. Taking a lead on green issues wasn’t just about the environment, but a battle for the soul of his party.
“I think the green agenda in the Tory party has and had a number of strong leading supporters – people like Oliver Letwin and Greg Barker,” Huhne says. “But it was relatively small compared with the LD and Labour, and it was part of the modernisation package.
“And as we’ve seen, I think the Tory modernisers led by the PM have had a number of problems, not just on the green agenda, but on other proposals they put forward.”
What’s the record?
It would be wrong to say there has been no progressive action since 2010. Two weeks ago the Prime Minister opened the world’s largest offshore windfarm, while last week DECC announced plans for an even bigger project 288 turbine project.
It’s a tough time to be pushing an ambitious low carbon policy, especially in Whitehall, where oil and gas lobbyists are deeply embedded.
The Green Deal, electricity market reform and the energy bill – which is inching its way through Parliament – are all signs of change.
At the UN talks the UK demonstrates real leadership, holding key negotiating positions on the EU team and calling for tougher European decarbonisation targets.
With the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners, Cameron’s low carbon agenda was never going to be consigned to history, but it does appear to have been slowed – considerably.
“I’d say now, the record in delivering the greenest government ever is not strong, and that is to put it mildly,” says John Ashton, UK climate envoy between 2006-2012
“They have not fulfilled the promise they made. It’s not to say Britain has fallen out of the race, partly as a result of the momentum that was already there as a result of the Climate Change Act, and partly as a consequence of the Liberal Democrat members of the coalition who tend to be a bit greener.”
The green veneer starting peeling from the coalition in 2011, when Chancellor George Osborne told a party conference green regulations were: “piling costs on to energy bills”. Earlier that year Osborne had frustrated Huhne’s efforts to adopt tougher carbon targets.
For many observers Osborne’s 2012 Budget was the nadir. Oil and gas explorers gained a £3bn tax break to encourage drilling. A bid to ensure the UK energy system was decarbonised by 2030 was also voted down by the government.
Wind turbine hater John Hayes enjoyed a brief stay as energy minister, but it was the climate sceptic Owen Paterson’s appointment as Environment Secretary that really raised eyebrows.
“It is a real problem to have one of the two key environmental voices in the cabinet not being persuaded by the scientific consensus, and not being led therefore by the evidence base,” says Huhne.
Why did it go wrong?
Much of the blame for the UK abandoning commitment to decarbonise its energy sector and instead to invest in gas has fallen at the feet of George Osborne.
Huhne frequently clashed with Osborne during his two years as Secretary of State. He says the Treasury’s “abominable no-man act” is responsible for the current failure of the Green Deal, the UK’s main domestic energy efficiency programme.
And while he defends much of the coalition’s record in the sector, citing the new energy bill and the approval of a fourth carbon budget, he suggests conservative in-fighting has caused the Prime Minister to withdraw from the sector.
“I see this as being a symptom that the Tory leadership and modernisers underestimated the problems within the conservative party and did not face down those demons at the point when it was important to do so in the run up to the general election,” he says.
“So they never went through the process Tony Blair went through in preparing Labour for government ahead of 1997, and I think we in the Liberal Democrat leadership underestimated the difficulty the Tory leadership would face in their own party, and on the green agenda, the reality is that there were probably a lot of Tories who always disliked the green agenda in opposition as well.”
All fracked up
Clark believes that is only part of the story.
“It hasn’t stuck to its promise at all. Why? For a lot of reasons, from the growth in climate scepticism in the Conservative party, which has capitalised on the relatively slow growth in warming in the last few years, to the failure of the wider world to follow the UK’s lead in terms of long-term carbon pledges, making it easy to paint our targets as an unfair burden on British business,” he explains.
“But personally I think the real key driver of the ‘de-greening’ has been the discovery of shale gas.”
The UK has discovered potentially large resources of shale gas in large swathes of the country. Even before there are estimates of how much of this can extracted into economically viable reserves, the industry is baiting the public with promises of multimillion compensation for affected communities and cheaper gas bills for all. The government appears to have bitten.
“One of the reasons the UK became an early leader on carbon cuts was that it has almost no fossil fuel left — i.e. around five to ten years of oil, coal and gas left in proven reserves given current rates of use,” suggests Clark.
“In other words we had little to lose. It’s no coincidence in my view that resistance to climate targets has gone hand in hand with the discovery of a new fossil fuel source.”
Harper has an alternative theory.
“I think that it was partly that environmental progress became connected with the nature of coalition. It became associated with what some in the Conservatives, some from the right, It just became a symbol of the compromises they were having to make. In a strange way I think that if we had just had the conservatives then we might have had less criticism on the environment agenda from the right.
“As a result some of the Lib Dems found it easier to highlight green friction and it became a lot harder for the Prime Minister to talk about it, which meant things got a lot quieter. And in the quiet you tend to hear more of the whispers, the doubts are magnified,” he adds.
Huhne believes there is a small band of conservatives still committed to the green agenda – led by Greg Barker and Oliver Letwin – but says climate and energy issues require a stronger government lead in times of economic hardship.
“Obviously the difficulty then has been to put up I believe what is a convincing narrative that the green route to recovering is the only convincing long term route, and to see this as short term trade offs or something we can only afford in good years as wrong,” he says.
As the prospect of a global climate change deal in 2015 draws closer, a greater level of leadership will be expected from the UK government.
While Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Davey does his best to convince sceptical journalists of the need to invest in clean energy, many believe national debate needs an intervention similar to US President Barack Obama’s recent speech.
“It’s worth noting that I think this was the first major speech on climate change by any major world leader since Copenhagen. There has been a lazy sense in the media in this country and others that Copenhagen was a damp squib and the attention of the world moved onto other things, and people don’t care,” says John Ashton.
“But people do. There’s evidence from polling, and events like Superstorm Sandy. It may be that the headline writers have moved on, but I don’t think the place of climate change in the public imagination has collapsed. What this speech does is it nails on its head any attempt to say leaders don’t care about climate change anymore.”
Cameron made a brief appearance with Greg Barker for the launch of the London Array windfarm two weeks ago, describing it as a “great day for Britain”.
Observers like Ashton are waiting for the day when a Prime Minister makes the case for low carbon economic growth, pushing the “narrative” Huhne mentions.
And yet all is not lost.
Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has argued that the 2008 Climate Change Act, which set a series of increasingly tough carbon budgets, means that this government is legally bound to be the greenest ever.
While ‘the law made us do it’ isn’t a case for the Government’s motivation, it is actually true.
Perhaps Cameron knew he was powerless to stop the transition to a low carbon future, so decided to keep mum after his Churchillian moment at DECC?
Perhaps unwittingly and despite the best efforts of some ministers, this is actually the greenest (British) government ever.