Over the years the British public has learned to take politician’s statements regarding the environment, and climate change in particular, with a mighty pinch of salt.
But then in May 2010, along came Cameron and Clegg’s coalition government promising to be ‘the greenest government ever’ – and the public, for a while, seemed to be convinced. Cameron used the phrase when talking to civil servants at the Department of Energy & Climate Change shortly after the election. “I mean that right from the bottom of my heart” Cameron said, promising to cut carbon emissions by 10 percent in the first twelve months. He singled out three areas for particular attention – a green economy, climate change and energy security. At least two of these buzz words, ‘green economy’ and ‘energy security’ had the capacity to attract significant attention from a weary electorate anxious to see what the new government would do for job creation and tired of having to depend on unstable nations, particularly those stricken by terrorism, for continued oil supplies. Those concerned about climate change were a little more wary considering the numbers of climate sceptics safely nestled in the ranks of the Tory Party. Sadly, they were not to be proved wrong.
At the time Deborah Doane, director of the World Development Movement, uttered a profound statement. \”History will judge this government on its green credentials by its policies to cut the UK\’s emissions dramatically” she said “Any suggestion that blue and yellow means green government are premature because there are so many unanswered questions about the policies.\”
Initially it all seemed so positive, the record of Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne and his Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) for example has been particularly impressive. In 2007 he demanded that Britain should have “no less than a zero-carbon Britain by 2050.” In the same year, he wrote an article for The Guardian claiming that Cameron’s environmental rhetoric remains just that, with no real substance to it. Upon election, Huhne launched ‘National Wind Week’ by speaking in Leicester Square and he has underlined his commitment to wind power by erecting a turbine on the roof of his home in Eastleigh, Hants. He has announced plans to develop renewable energy and embracing carbon capture technology and he helped to reach a deal on climate finance at the climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010. It’s also worth pointing out that so far the UK has been the first country in the world to put its climate change targets into law and much of that, I believe, is down to Huhne’s watch at the DECC.
Impressive, but then it all turned sour, with the result that, as Alexis Rowell argued in Energy Bulletin, it’s now “almost impossible to find an academic, a commentator or an environmentalist who is positive about the coalition’s environmental record, which is hardly surprising given what’s happening.”
In May this year, Oxfam issued a warning that internal bickering within the cabinet was threatening to derail progress on climate change. “Such division is not only weakening the government’s resolve on this issue but also threatening the lives and livelihoods of those vulnerable to climate change” it said. “Cabinet spats and personal agendas must be put aside to protect the progress that the UK is making. The ‘greenest government ever’ is threatened and that is worrying news for those who rely on the powerful to keep their promises.”
The well known environmentalist Jonathan Porritt reveals the extent of the government’s vandalism on his blog. Over the course of the year since the election Porritt has reviewed some 77 coalition government policies for a Friends of the Earth report which was released in May. His criticism is scathing. “the bad and the positively ugly indisputably outweigh the good” he comments “All in all, [it is] as close to a nightmare as one can imagine.” Porritt goes on to state that the prospects of the government living up to its claims has become “vanishingly remote”.
Although the recession has been a factor in the coalition’s decision making process, Porritt quickly demolishes any such excuse as “a bit of a cop-out” citing George Osborne’s raising of some £10 million to offset the reductions in fuel duty as well as the government’s fairly lax performance in promoting a green economy. He claims that the Prime Minister has been far from visible on green issues and has no ‘personal vision’ for the promised green economy, something that has encouraged piecemeal decision making. In fact he firmly believes that the usual pattern of governance has prevailed, the ‘growth at all costs lobby’ has won the day. This disaster has been compounded by a wealth of de-regulation, hostility to planning, an emphasis on shrinking the state and favouring the private sector.
George Monbiot largely agrees with Porritt. “Goodbye Cameron the conciliator” he laments in his blog of May 9th before welcoming “Cameron the Destroyer.” Monbiot’s concern is certainly justified. Despite all the promising rhetoric, Friends of the Earth has discovered that the Treasury, the Department for Transport and Vince Cable’s Business Department have been lobbying against the advice by the Committee on Climate Change that to stay on target carbon emissions should be cut by 60 percent by 2030.
Cameron has supported the committee thus far arguing that commitments to solving climate change should be handled by a group of experts, rather than politicians. The PM’s reasoning is that the timetable for reducing emissions should be free of political interference in order to prevent politicians from “putting short electoral considerations above the long-term interests of the country and the planet.”
Nevertheless, the attempts by the Tory business ministers have positioned those departments against Chris Huhne’s Department of Energy and Climate Change which has been trying to defend the carbon emissions targets. Business Secretary Vince Cable appears to be one of the villains of the piece. In a letter leaked to The Guardian Cable was quoted as saying that \”Agreeing too aggressive a level risks burdening the UK economy, which would be detrimental to UK, undermining the UK\’s competitiveness and our attractiveness as a place to do business.\”
Fortunately, it seems that on this occasion, Cameron has listened to the electorate since the DECC has just announced that the government will accept the recommendations of the committee. Despite this triumphant announcement, Monbiot describes the attempted assault on the Climate Change Act as just the beginning. He states that the government’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’ represents “the widest ranging threat to environmental protection since the Enclosure Acts.”
Monbiot is of course referring to the possibility that the government may scrap all environment legislation – yes you did read that correctly, the whole lot. This would include the Climate Change Act, the Town and Country Planning Act, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, the various acts which established the UK’s National Parks – which of course means getting rid of the parks themselves, the rules concerned with energy efficiency, hazardous waste, litter prevention, dog-fouling and so on. Monbiot’s view, with which I entirely agree, is that the country so far has become so ‘punch drunk’, in my estimation thanks largely to the Thatcher years and to the Blair and Brown government’s, that the last shreds of legislation which protect us from ‘feral’, unregulated, free-market capitalism could perceivably be torn to shreds without the British public noticing too much. After all, what is that important when you’re busy trying to keep track of numerous squabbles on Eastenders or among the judges on Britain’s Got Talent or The X-Factor?
The Tory front bench are very clever, Monbiot says. That’s very true. There’s a whole revolt going on in Middle England over the imposition of wind turbines and renewable energy plants. Climate scepticism is as strong as ever and meanwhile our politicians, right across all three main political parties, have become a class unto themselves, as revealed so magnificently by Peter Oborne in his 2007 book The Triumph of the Political Class, and if you really want to know just how dangerous our governmental system has now become to both people and planet, that is a book you should read.
Cabinet Office, ‘Red Tape Challenge’ http://www.redtapechallenge.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/environment/
Huhne, Chris, ‘Blue Won’t Be Green’, The Guardian, 27th April 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/apr/27/comment.politics
Monbiot, George, ‘Shaking the Tree’, The Guardian, 9th May 2011 http://www.monbiot.com/2011/05/09/shaking-the-tree/
Oborne, Peter (2007) \”The Triumph of the Political Class\”, London: Simon & Schuster
Oxfam’s open letter to David Cameron, May 2011, http://www.oxfam.org.uk/applications/blogs/pressoffice/2011/05/13/the-greenest-government-ever-an-open-letter-to-david-cameron/
Oxfam ‘Cancun climate change talks: Oxfam says we’re off life support with hope for the future’, 13th December 2010 http://www.oxfam.org.uk/applications/blogs/pressoffice/2010/12/13/cancun-climate-change-talks-oxfam-says-were-off-life-support-with-hope-for-the-future/
Rowell, Alexis, ‘Is this the greenest government ever?’, Energy Bulletin, 12th May 2011 http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-05-13/greenest-government-ever
‘Climate Change: What MP’s Think’, The Independent, 15th November 2006 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/climate-change-what-mps-think–a-to-c-424376.html