Now look. I’ve been thinking long and hard about how best to view the new government and its policies and this is the thing. Although my nicer self tells me, believe them!, love them!, give them the benefit of the doubt!, the rest of me says, for heavens sake, don’t believe a word they say until you’ve had the massage, tried the pudding, or washed the facepack off.
And so we here at The Ecologist are setting out with this occasional column to cast an eye over the plans that our nearly-new leaders are making to keep Cameron’s promise to be 'the greenest government ever.' We want to check up on what Chris Huhne’s DECC (the Department for Energy and Climate Change), Caroline Spelman’s DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Eric Pickles’ CLG (Communities and Local Government) and of course George Osbourne’s HMT (Her Majesty’s Treasury) are saying they’re going to do, and what they’re actually doing.
And from a default setting of extreme scepticism, things, needless to say, don’t look too good. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has said that the government’s claim that their cuts were 'fair' is pretty useless, which makes any agenda of social and environmental justice a little weaker. DEFRA took some of the biggest cuts and is now going to sell off parts of our national forestland. A bite was taken out of DECC too, which meant that the promised Green Bank was set up with initial funding of just £1bn, a figure which everyone says is basically not enough.
Moreover the Warm Front scheme, which gave grants to get insulation, is being phased out, just as benefits to those living in fuel poverty are being brutally knocked around. And on rubbish DEFRA are working towards a 'voluntary responsibility deal on waste disposal for businesses' which basically means abandon hope that businesses are going to take any serious responsibility for the huge chunk of our waste problem which is down to them. Doom gloom and kaboom, basically, from this particular position.
But actually, from a purely environmental perspective, it’s hard to stay too depressed because (whisper it) there are some signs that this government may really be serious about its green agenda. The simple presence of the redoubtable Chris Huhne at DECC is cheering for a start: this is a serious and intelligent politician who is showing encouraging signs of knowing how to maneuvre and fight to get what his department wants. DECC didn’t do nearly as badly in the cuts as some had expected; he preserved the scheme to build a Carbon Capture and Storage plant, albeit in a smaller form; he has reiterated, over and over again, his support for renewable energy, and he recently set out the Green Deal in a landmark speech to the London School of Economics. Have a read of this speech here.
It gives you a good idea of who you’re dealing with; it is clear and thoughtful, with a real understanding of possibilities. It is refreshingly free of labour-bashing, and, as an interesting aside, includes reference to a great bit of research which Huhne has commissioned: 'I asked DECC economists to look at the impact of a late 1970s-style oil price shock on our economy. They found that if the oil price doubled, it could lead to a cumulative loss of GDP of around £45 billion over 2 years. That’s the equivalent of the entire Ministry of Defence budget in 2008/09.'
This is the sort of thing that a clever politician will be able to use to give himself much more heft, especially given the fact that Lloyds of London has predicted that oil prices are extremely likely to rise sharply in the next couple of years. God knows we want DECC to have heft.
It is true, as Martyn Williams of Friends of the Earth pointed out to me, that his numbers look a little shaky. If Labour insulated 2m homes in two years and there are now 27,000 people working in the insulation industry, how can it be that, given the Coalition’s plans to insulate 3.5million homes in the next two (just 1.5m more than Labour) Huhne is predicting 100,000 jobs?
It is also true that Huhne paints a picture of renewables which is, perhaps, a little over-optimistic; saying that 'in Britain, onshore wind is expected to be cost competitive with nuclear power' is the sort of ministerial gloss which quickly skates over the fact that nuclear power is incredibly expensive. In order to access large quantities of renewable energy the initial capital costs are going to be sky-high, and we will have to just bite the bullet and do it.'
But overall, you’d have to say, DECC seems to be travelling in the right
direction. So far the promises from DECC seem to be that electric cars can keep their subsidies, the Green Deal (with a very welcome focus on private rented tenants and a promise to give power to local authorities to enforce this with landlords if necessary) has come along to replace Warm Front, the smart grid will be planned out, and that DECC will try its best to push the EU towards a target of a 30 per cent cut in carbon emissions, instead of the current feeble 20 per cent.
Meanwhile the CLG is finally making progress on the Sustainable Communities Act, and DEFRA is openly stating a policy of working towards zero waste (okay, not much detail, but a laudable start).
Let’s not get carried away. This, after all, is only the beginning of a long journey with this government, with a PR man at the helm and the nasty party barking in the background. And we know all too well, after the years with New Labour, that targets are meaningless unless concrete steps are taken to reach them. We know too that the current economy gives the government a useful excuse to stop talking about the environment – and we’ve had too many wasted years (thanks Tony) already.
So what we want to do here is set up a Coalition Green Watch, to make sure they don’t sneak stuff past us, fail to meet their targets, secretly change the goalposts during the wee smalls. And we want your help to do it, all your expertise, your knowledge of policy, and government activity. If you spot areas where the government is falling short or covering up, let us know, and we’ll follow up and find out more.
To send ideas, tips or reactions to Bibi: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bibi van der Zee is a journalist who writes about the environment, activism, food and politics (amongst other things) and the author of Rebel, Rebel: the Protestor's Handbook. www.bibivanderzee.com/
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