To what extent have recent governments kept their green promises?

After the inconclusive election in 2010, the coalition’s programme for government had substantially covered the challenge of climate change, some would say as strongly as it talked  about cutting the deficit. On 14 May, three days after becoming prime minister, Cameron went to the Department of Energy and Climate Change to declare his would be “the greenest government ever”. He even appointed himself the department’s “fourth minister”. Yet, Osborne’s cold wall of austerity quickly undermined meaningful green action and the few coalition environmental policies never seemed to truly take effect. Cameron’s off the cuff remark to get rid of  “all the green crap” and his reluctance to prioritise the environment over austerity meant the coalition government had fallen short.

There are a number of international and EU agreements to which recent Tory-led governments have agreed. The key ones can be found here. In essence the United Kingdom has agreed to an ambitious EU target, by 2050, EU leaders have endorsed the objective of reducing Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% compared to 1990 levels and has legislated to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. EU renewables targets have been set to an average of 20% across the union, with the UK having to convert 15% of its energy-mix to renewables by 2020. The UK has also signed up to the 1992 Kyoto Protocols, ratified by over 180 countries who agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2%. Commitment to these targets were put into British law with the Climate Change Act of 2008, the Conservatives never publicly reneged from these targets.

Evaluating the Coalition’s  promises, there was a reason why there was so much detail on climate change in 2010 agreement. The Liberal Democrats, always an pro-environmentalist party, were there as a counterweight for the sceptical Tory right. Chris Huhne, the first secretary of state for Energy and Climate Change, pursued on a green agenda and was up for a fight, producing impressive policy gains. Most notably in 2011, with the Fourth Carbon budget, that set emissions reduction targets for 2023-27, the next stepping stone to the 2050 target of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions. However Huhne was balanced by Owen Paterson at the Department of Environment, a known climate sceptic who had argued Climate Change science had been consistently and widely exaggerated” in scientific forecasts.

The Coalition had introduced the Green Deal to ensure greater household energy conservation. However fewer than 4,000 households had Green Deal plans in progress by the end of June 2014, according to the latest government figures, although more than 300,000 Green Deal assessments have been conducted on homes. Paying back the cost of the repairs, such as insulation or a new energy efficient boiler by a top-up on energy bills, over a number of years with interest evidently acted as a disincentive. Miliband, previous leader of the Labour party stated in the 2015 general election that the interest element would be scrapped. With buildings that leak heat and waste energy accounting for 38% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.  Tory MP Greg Barker placed blame in February 2015 on large energy companies for the failure of the project, claiming they had feigned enthusiasm and never seriously tried to sell the Green Deal to consumers. The government scheme was designed to help people make their homes more energy efficient by installing new boilers, insulation and solar panels. But the unique financing at the heart of the scheme saw little take-up and five months after the launch, only one of the big six energy providers had rolled out a national Green Deal.

Concerning transport, government policy has been mixed. The coalition’s rejection of the BAA third runway at Heathrow airport was met with approval from green groups, neither Heathrow or Gatwick could build a new runway. An additional runway will increase CO2 levels. However the Coalition commissioned Howard Davies to prepare a report on future expansion, now the Conservatives have a majority it will probably accept its recommendations for a new runway, possibly in Gatwick. The demands of economic growth means to maintain London’s Hub Status a new runway is necessary. The Coalition also floated the idea of increasing motorway speed-limits from 70 to 80mph, to stimulate economic productivity, however after green campaigners objected, they reversed their intentions. Additionally, the Queen’s 2015 speech declared that her “government will continue to legislate for high-speed rail links between the different parts of the country.” An environmentally friendly project which the government claims will move millions of air and road trips on to rail. However, controversially HS2’s 250mph trains will use 50% more energy than the Eurostar trains, the HS2 Action Alliance says.  Nevertheless, Boris Johnson as Mayor of London has delivered successful a superhighway cycle scheme and kept the congestion charge , but axed any intentions of extending it.

An EU target stating that all member state’s energy mix must be 20% renewable, the UK being slightly advantaged at 15% means that the coalition and present Tory government would be held accountable for their pledge. In fact, after the 2015 General Election, all three main party leaders, Clegg, Miliband and Cameron signed a commitment restating their commitment to this target. So far, just 4% of UK energy is from renewables. The government had been challenged when they promoted the development of wind farms. These were not aesthetically desirable to Tory supporting voters in the UK’s countryside with Pickles Department of Communities resisting planning permission for on-shore wind farms. They also removed the generous subsidies the Labour government brought in 2010 to solar energy produced by householders known as feed-in tariffs. The government has instead opted to give the green light to a number of large scale tidal power projects such as the Swansea Tidal Lagoon project, which will power 120,000 homes and the Anglesey underwater kite-turbine scheme, both projects were given the go ahead in Osborne’s 2015 budget. The government has also given the go ahead to two Nuclear Power stations, one built by a Chinese firm and another by EDF. Although not counted as a renewable, nuclear energy is carbon neutral and not counted as a fossil fuel. The nuclear option has long been favoured by environmentalists such as George Monbiot.

However, in the last parliament the government gave the oil and gas industry billions of pounds in tax breaks and subsidies, while it spent barely £400m making buildings more energy efficient.  A planned duty rise on petrol was abandoned in the face of ever increasing prices at the pumps. George Osborne told the Tory party conference in 2011: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.” The government has been enthusiastic about the development of Shale exploration, also known as fracking. It is estimated that gas from fracking could supply Britain for 40 years. The government has been spending millions in subsidies on fracking, with a controversial 60-80 million to be spent on exploration work by the government. Caroline Lucas from the Green Party calls it ‘dirty money’. David Cameron has said the government is “going all out for shale”, but the issue remains highly controversial, with protests across the country. Ministers see shale gas and oil, which have transformed the American energy market, as providing an important economic opportunity for the UK. Chemical giant Ineos said last Thursday that it would invest £640m to launch a fracking revolution in Britain and claimed it could turn villagers into millionaires.

To stimulate the green economy, the government introduced the Green investment Bank by investing £3.8 billion onto the scheme on the 1st April 2012. The idea was to allow green technology companies borrowing at favourable rates. However the bank has not been given the right to raise money on the open market.

The Conservative government has appointed Amber Rudd as the Secretary of State for Climate Change, after Lib Dem Ed Davey. Rudd is seen to be a ‘green Tory’, a strong environmentalist and a counter to the Tory sceptics. Her appointment was applauded by green groups who were worried about Britain’s representation at  the December Paris International Conference of Climate Change.  Rudd is described as ‘really green and no nonsense‘. At the Paris summit there is real hope for change with China and America signing up to an agreement on climate change, a complete reversal to previous international conferences.

Lucie Wolfman

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