In 2006, the Conservative party under DavidCameroneffectively relaunched itself in a bid to become electable, like most parties which have spent a number of years in opposition. Having gained a reputation as the ‘nasty’ party, the new team set about smoothing the rough edges and becoming more cuddly. Foremost among the changes was a move towards a new, green image. Pictures of the party leader – complete with dog sledge – visiting northern Norwayto learn about global warming made a big impression at the time. So did the ‘vote blue, go green’. The Tories positioned themselves as sharing the environmental concerns of some of the influential lobby groups and made some people consider voting for them who might not otherwise have done so.
The rest is history, as they say. Although not elected with an overall majority, the UKhas a Conservative prime minister leading a coalition government, and the Labour party is in opposition again, perhaps for some considerable time. The Lib Dems, seizing the opportunity to share power for the first time in many years, have found that the realities of government have tarnished their image so badly that the next election is likely to see the return of an effective two-party system. Many Lib Dem voters regard the party under NickCleggas having compromised its principles too much. The party seems doomed to remain the party of protest, with its popularity increasing until it has to get its hands dirty in government, at which time it has entered the mainstream and the protest votes are withdrawn. Being a modern Lib Dem MP or parliamentary candidate seems to require a combination of apparent saintliness and masochism which is not as rare as you might think.
In these circumstances, it is the attitude of the Conservatives which will shape environmental policy over this and the next parliament. Although promised as the ‘greenest government ever’, should expectations be tempered with a dose of realism? The indications are that green policies are having to vie with hard economics in terms of priority. The surest sign was the carefully-prepared remark by GeorgeOsborneat this year’s party conference that "we're going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe." This was reported in the Guardian’s environment blog as George Osborne reveals his true colours on emissions – and they aren’t green.
This is perhaps the first public sign of the government biting the bullet and addressing the problems thrown up by the Climate Change Act, passed almost unanimously by MPs in 2008, in a fit of idealism to which even seasoned politicians can sometimes be prone. This committed future governments to meet stringent long-term emissions reduction targets as well as accepting a series of shorter term carbon budgets set by an independent climate change committee.
It seems that many in the Conservative party have since realised that meeting these targets would be a significant drag on an economy already struggling to recover from a serious recession. Not only that, but occupying the moral high ground and taking a lead on emissions reduction would be of little practical significance unless other countries followed. Even a concerted move by all EU member states would merely slow the rise in global emissions unless other major economies – particularly Chinaand other rapidly-industrialising countries – were to take serious action to reduce their current or projected emissions and cut their use of coal.
This means that the government is currently trying to face both ways: ministers are paying lip service to the need to mitigate climate change (some more enthusiastically than others) while George Osborne makes it clear that there are also economic priorities, and the Treasury controls the purse strings on green funding. This could go on for a long time, with priority being given to economic recovery while sufficient progress is made on green projects to keep environmental lobbyists off the government’s back. They must also remain mindful of the public mood: fuel poverty is already a big issue and artificially inflating prices further, particularly if energy security is compromised, is hardly going to be a vote winner.
The balancing act is illustrated quite nicely by a recent report – Climate Check: Analysis of the government’s delivery of its low carbon commitments – jointly published by ChristianAid, Greenpeace, the Green Alliance, the RSPB and WWF (and written by two Green Alliance staff). This categorised 28 green policies, covering areas including renewable energy, the Green Investment Bank, energy efficiency and green taxation, as either Green (making good progress), Amber (moderate progress, but at risk from poor design or delays) or Red (failing).
Only a quarter of all policies (seven) were judged as making good progress, with five classed as failing and 16 falling in the Amber category. However, of these, 11 were compromised by bad design and/or had been delayed. Even those classed as Green were largely target-setting (eg advocating greater emissions reduction at EU level and setting a 10% target for emissions from government buildings) or were decisions which could severely compromise economic growth (ruling out additional runways at Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick).
It is difficult not to conclude that the government is taking the opportunity to fudge the issue of green policymaking, hedging its bets until the public mood and understanding of climate science are both clearer. The best which can be hoped for is that this results in more effort going into issues such as energy efficiency, new power generation methods and stress-tolerant crops, all of which would benefit society whatever the ultimate reality of climate change turns out to be.