In the pithy words of one Downing Street insider, 'it was a cock up'. That pretty much sums up the recent forest-sell-off debacle; a bunch of inexperienced policy wonks came up with an idea they loved and completely failed to realise that the British public would hear the words 'sell trees to private sector' and rise from our armchairs as one. A wonderful rainbow coalition formed almost immediately, and, faced with the exciting prospect of the Battle of Newbury times-a-hundred, David Cameron clipped everyone in Defra round the ear and dropped the idea completely.
Entertaining for sure. But what does it tell us about the wider reality of the coalition’s green ambitions? There are two important things we can learn here, I think. Firstly these guys are no more in touch with the British people and the countryside then the last lot. The bean-counter mentality which only counts the numbers and can’t see the social value of anything continues to prevail. But that is not really a surprise, is it? David Cameron may talk about society but I despair of ever seeing a politician in power who genuinely appears to understand the notion of social capital.
Far more worryingly – as far as I am concerned – is that yet again this government shows itself to be incredibly naïve and ideologically driven. This is dangerous. It is worrying enough when it comes to our natural environment. But it is downright terrifying when it comes to the most important issue of our age; energy.
Now, Chris Huhne and his team at DECC inherited a shedload of problems including an expected doubling of electricity demand; nearly a quarter of our coal and nuclear power stations due to go offline within the next few years; a stalling renewable sector, desperately in need of a little love and nurturing; a crumbling grid in need of rebuilding; and commitments to reduce our carbon emissions and increase our renewable production that are looming ever closer.
As DECC puts it: 'Overall, this means that we have a huge investment challenge. Ofgem have estimated that we need around £200bn in generation, electricity networks and gas infrastructure. Of this at least £110bn would be needed in new generation and transmission assets in electricity – over double the rate of the last decade.' Let’s not forget that we’re either coming out of or going back into a recession. Money is scarce.
And to be fair the energy department have set about their job with plenty of vigour: they’ve launched the consultation on Electricity Market Reform (EMR), the Energy Bill is going through parliament with the Green Deal, they’re reforming the business obligations and working out the details of the Green Investment Bank shortly. You can imagine that it’s a full day down at DECC.
Nevertheless there is a certain droop of expectations around at the moment (both the Guardian’s Green-o-Metre and the Confederation of British Industry’s Climate Change tracker have notched downwards from optimistic beginnings last autumn). That can, in part, be put down that we are now in the horse-trading stages for most of these tactics, and also to the fact that the government is staying very quiet about all this activity because they reportedly see no percentage in getting out there and talking about it. Huhne himself is seen as a gifted technocrat, but not one of the world’s great public communicators. And energy as a whole, despite being such an extraordinary geo-political power struggle, does not grab the public’s attention. As long as the lights come on, by and large, they’re happy.
But what about the long-term prospects of these plans? This is where naivety is a worry. The Green Deal, for example, is the plan whereby consumers can get a loan to retrofit their houses, which will be paid off by the savings they make on their power bills. In theory, probably like the forest sell-off, a great idea.
In practice, however, campaigners have serious worries about whether this will go nearly far enough to deliver the huge national retrofit that we need if we are to meet our carbon reduction commitments. WWF have done some research and believe that it will be easy to get the first one in four consumers on board, but after that people won’t know about it or will hesitate, and there will be nothing in place to change their minds.
And Friends of the Earth fear that subsidy will still be needed but that none will be forthcoming. 'When you look at the details' says FOE’s David Powell, 'there are big gaps and problems.' The assumption here – as naïve as they come – is that you offer people a good deal and then just sit back and count the carbon reductions. That incentives will do it and little or no regulation will be needed. These are the assumptions of people who have no idea how hard it is to get anyone to do anything, who make decisions about their own lives in rational well-motivated ways and have no clue about the disorganised and rackety way in which we grubbier and less well-connected mortals live.
And something similar appears to be going on with the EMR, which seems to be planning to shower incentives (such as the capacity mechanism - a payment to power companies for providing back up capacity for renewables. In brief, when the wind drops coal-fired power stations need to be fired up to fill the gap: the capacity mechanism is basically compensation to those stations from the government for taking on this role instead of working all round the clock) all over the place. Certainly our power companies need to be tempted into investing. But will there be a stick too? Any parent can tell you that just handing out cake all day long won’t work; children who are overindulged by their parents turn into bullies.
It’s an odd situation and one which, to be honest, makes me nervous. We have a government which, by its own admission, prefers persuasion to obligation, or free markets to regulation. The terms of the new business obligations are not, it is true, yet known. But really, how tough do we expect them to be? Handcuffed by their own ideology, haven’t the coalition naively left themselves with 'incentives' the only tool in the box? What are they planning to do if that doesn’t work? After all these plans, unlike the forest-sell-off, cannot just be dropped.
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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