The Greenest Government Ever?


Nick Clegg and David Cameron (source: Flickr Creative Commons)


The Government is reneging on its pledge to be the "greenest ever," but there's still time to turn it around. Gavin Haines explains how the Coalition could make good its promise.
Norway is showing how you can use oil income to fund the transition out of oil

Opinions might be divided over the Coalition's austerity packages - not to mention David Cameron's decision to hold a referendum over EU membership - but there can be no doubts about the Government's quest (and election promises) to be the "greenest ever."

It is failing. 

Worse than that, critics claim the Coalition is actually heading in the opposite direction. 

According to Friends of the Earth, George Osborne (who is said to have described green lobbyists as the "environmental Taliban") is setting us on a path to fossil fuel dependency, deterring investment in renewables and thus actively stifling what could otherwise be a burgeoning green economy. 

"Blue and yellow hasn't produced green," says Andy Atkins, Executive Director at Friends of the Earth. "David Cameron's pledge to lead the 'greenest Government ever' is being systematically undermined by short-sighted policies."

The Department of Energy and Climate Change, (DECC), which unveiled its draft Energy Bill last November, has refuted these findings and claims the Government is on target to make good its pledge. "Our ambition for a low carbon economy is reflected in the new Energy Bill which will bring about the construction of a diverse mix of renewables, new nuclear, gas and CCS [carbon, capture and storage]," said a spokesperson for the DECC.  

"This will protect our economy from energy shortfalls and will significantly decarbonise our electricity supply by the 2030s, which is key to tackling climate change."  

However, economists, business leaders and politicians have joined environmentalists in their criticism of the disappointing Energy Bill, which failed to set targets for decarbonisation.

"There is now an overwhelming consensus that the best way to position the UK as a modern, efficient economy while cutting carbon emissions and controlling energy bills, is to use the Energy Bill to decarbonise our electricity supply by 2030," explains Kathy Cumming of Greenpeace. "As it stands, there is a gaping hole in the bill in the shape of a 2030 target."

Norway is showing how you can use oil income to fund the transition out of oil

So what could the Coalition do to still fulfil its green promises? 

Amend the Energy Bill 

Although pre-legislative scrutiny has highlighted holes in the Energy Bill, this legislation remains a huge opportunity to set the UK on a greener trajectory. 

"Its success is largely going to centre around whether or not there is a decarbonisation target stretching out to 2030," says Oliver Hayes, a political campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "What that would do, what businesses and investors are saying, is that it would give them the long-term confidence to invest [in renewables] and to bring the supply chain here to the UK, so they can actually start to make the infrastructure, create the green jobs and build the factories that are going to supply the renewable industry."

Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change agrees; just last week he claimed most of the businesses he had spoken to supported the inclusion of a decarbonisation target.  

Support the green economy 

"The green economy is a good news story," explains Hayes. "While the rest of the economy is tanking we've got the green economy delivering four to five per cent of growth each year."

Government figures claim the sector is now employing more than a million people, yet despite it being a growth industry the Treasury is still reluctant to allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow money. "Whilst it's great that it [the Green Investment Bank] has finally come into existence, it is being hamstrung by this slightly perverse requirement that it can't borrow properly until the national debt is falling," explains Hayes. "Given the Chancellor's autumn statement we're now not looking at that being the case for another four or five years."

This is a massive opportunity that is being missed by the Government. 

"The Green Investment Bank should be an engine for recovery," adds Hayes. "It should be unleashing a lot of private sector investment in the green economy which could boost economic growth."

Invest in efficiency 

Earlier this month the Government launched the Green Deal, a scheme designed to encourage homeowners and businesses to invest in energy efficiency improvements to their properties. 

The work is paid for upfront by energy providers and is repaid in manageable instalments, with interest, through homeowners'electricity bills, which should be significantly lower having carried out all these improvements. It's a welcome initiative, but it won't compensate for the Government's decision to scrap the Warm Front programme. 

"With the Chancellor calling time on the Warm Front scheme, from next year there will be no publicly funded energy efficiency grants scheme in England for the first time in 30 years," explains Hayes. 

Spending on energy efficiency measures targeted at the fuel poor has been slashed by approximately 50 per cent since 2009/10, which critics say is costing the Treasury money. 

"There are five million households in the UK in fuel poverty and treating the illnesses caused by living in a cold home is estimated to cost the NHS over £850m annually," says Hayes. 

The Government has proven it is not adverse to policy U-turns and it needs to make one here; rather than abandoning energy efficiency grants, investing in them it would ease the strain on the NHS, the environment and those living in fuel poverty. 

Make fossil fuels pay

Keen not to be left high and dry when fossil fuels run out, the Norwegian Government has doubled the carbon tax on its North Sea oil industry and will use the money raised to help tackle climate change and fund its transition from an oil economy to one based on renewable energy. 

In contrast, last year George Osborne offered tax breaks to the UK's North Sea oil industry, hoping it will lead to fossil fuel boom. 

Environmentalists argue he could take Norway's lead and use the money generated to provide a more economically and ecologically sustainable future. "Norway is showing how you can use oil income to fund the transition out of oil," explains Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland. "We should be doing the same with UK oil reserves."

Ban plastic bags 

It might seem trivial (in comparison to national energy policy), but if the Government can't tackle the scourge of plastic bags then it inspires little confidence when it comes to bigger issues. Outlawing carrier bags would be an easy hit for the Coalition and would likely attract positive media coverage. 

The authorities in Italy, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Mauritania have already banned them, which begs the question; why can't we? 

Disappointingly, at the moment, we're heading in the wrong direction. According to the waste management specialists, WRAP, carrier bag usage in the UK has increased by 5.4 per cent since the Coalition came to power.

Green innovations abroad

Last year, Denmark's Minister for Climate, Energy and Building, Martin Lidegaard, announced "the broadest, greenest and most long-term energy agreement" the Danish Government has ever reached. 

By 2020 the Danes aim to cut energy consumption by 12 per cent (compared to 2006 levels) and slash the country's greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 34 per cent (compared to 1990 levels). 

Renewables will play a key part in meeting those targets; within seven years the Government predicts 35 per cent of the country's energy will come from renewable resources. This would put it well on course to meet its 2050 target of being powered by 100 per cent green energy. 

"Denmark will once again be the global leader in the transition to green energy," said Lidegaard. "This will prepare us for a future with increasing prices for oil and coal. Moreover, it will create some of the jobs that we need so desperately, now and in the coming years."

Although Denmark is at the vanguard of renewable energy, Lidegaard's claims of being the "global leader" could be disputed by the small, Pacific archipelago of Tokelau. With a bit of help from New Zealand, last year authorities there completed a project that enabled the atoll to meet 100 per cent of its energy needs using renewable power sources. 

Tokelau's 1,400 residents get their power from 4,032 photovoltaic panels and, when the sun doesn't shine, they use 1,344 solar charged batteries and back-up generators powered by coconut biofuel, which is produced locally.

Other Pacific islands are expected to follow suit; by the end of this year Fiji aims to source 100 per cent of its energy needs from renewables, while the Cook Islands, Niue and Tuvalu are aiming to reach the same milestone by 2020.  

Gavin Haines is a freelance journalist. Follow him: @gavin_haines


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