The New UK Coalition Government’s Green Agenda

The New UK Coalition Government’s Green Agenda

July 10, 2010

An innovative range of environmental policy initiatives has been announced by the new coalition government in Britain that builds on the promises made by the two coalition members in their recent general election manifestos.

During the election campaign, the Liberal Democrats in particular emphasised their green credentials claiming to be “the only party in British politics that can and will put the environment at the heart of government.”

Although not all their policies are supported by the new government, David Cameron, the new prime minister, has appointed a Liberal Democrat, Christopher Huhne, to steer the government’s green policies. The choice of a Liberal Democrat spokesman on environmental issues suggests that, besides an environmental agenda at home, the coalition can be expected to take a proactive role in the development of green policies both in the European Union and on the world stage.

For the most part, the pre-election promises of the three main parties on environmental issues were broadly similar, although the Liberal democrats provided more detail in terms of policies and financial commitments. In theory then, the promotion of green policies should be straightforward, but two factors may slow the process.

First, the UK is faced with a huge national deficit and the Treasury has embarked on the extensive program of cost savings that is unlikely to leave the green agenda unscathed. The first stage of cuts announced on May 24 has already seen a 5.3% reduction in the budget of the government department charged with overseeing the environment and rural affairs.

Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, there are indications that the British public’s enthusiasm for green issues may have peaked. True, the Green Party won its first ever parliamentary seat in the general election, but the overall number of votes cast for the Green Party nationwide was negligible when compared to the votes for the three main parties. The general public’s awareness of “green issues” has undoubtedly increased since the last general election. Nevertheless, the environment did not feature significantly as a party political issue during this election campaign. The Guardian newspaper’s website reported the findings of a recent opinion poll in late May as showing that “popular concern about climate change has declined significantly, following this year’s harsh winter and rows over statistics on global warming.” At the same time, resistance to building new nuclear power stations appears to be slackening. The results of the “YouGov” poll, based on a sample of 4,300 adults questioned during the week after the general election, showed 62% interested in climate change down from 71% last year and 80% in 2006.

Thus, just as the coalition has announced its belief that climate change is one of the gravest threats we face with urgent action needed both at home and abroad and has promised a full program of measures to fulfil the ambitions of both parties for a low carbon and eco-friendly economy, two factors threaten to derail the initiative.

First, the parlous state of the nation’s economy means that the pre-election promises of the Liberal Democrats that their government would fund green projects have now been quietly forgotten as the coalition looks predominantly to private sector funding. Second, we are unlikely to see any form of public backlash if environmental promises are weakened because, put simply, the UK public appears, for the present at least, to have other priorities.

Specifics

Within just a few days of forming the new coalition government, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats published the terms of their coalition negotiations agreement setting out their joint policies on 11 specific areas including the “Environment.” A few days later, they published “The Coalition: our programme for government” which builds on the initial paper and includes specific policy initiatives on “Energy and Climate Change” and “Environment, Food and Rural Affairs” together with green fiscal initiatives in the “Taxes” section.

The environmental policies appear to have been broadly welcomed by commentators and The Financial Times reported that analysts believe that a turnaround in renewable energy shares is likely to be triggered by the government’s decision to keep green technology “on the agenda” and, in particular, its pledge to build on the previous government’s commitment to create a green investment bank “to promote the green industries.” Among other things, the green bank will provide financial products designed to enable individuals to invest in the infrastructure needed to support the new green economy. Also in the financial sector, the UK Trade and Investment and Export Credits Guarantee Department will be used to champion British companies that develop and export innovative green technologies around the world, instead of supporting investment in fossil-fuel energy production.

In order to encourage more environmentally-friendly means of transport and to “support sustainable travel initiatives,” the coalition has promised to reform the way decisions are made on which transport projects to prioritize, so that the benefits of low-carbon proposals (including light railway schemes) are fully recognised. In an acknowledgment of the environmental impact of air travel as well as a means to increase tax revenues without directly affecting individuals, the government is to replace the UK’s current system of a per person charge on passenger air transport by a per flight duty that will extend the charge to freight carriers. Controversial plans for a third runway at Heathrow, London’s main airport, have been scrapped and no further runways will be permitted at two other airports serving London and the southeast of England at Gatwick and Stansted. The UK remains committed to the establishment of a high-speed rail network but the government acknowledges that financial constraints will require that this be achieved in phases. Finally on transport, the government has promised to mandate a national recharging network for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

In the field of energy production and use, the government will increase the target for energy from renewable sources, subject to the advice of the Climate Change Committee, introduce measures to promote “a huge increase” in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion, encourage home energy efficiency improvements paid for by the savings from lower energy bills through the “Green Deal” initiative, take measures to improve energy efficiency in business and public sector buildings, reducing central government carbon emissions by 10% within 12 months, establish a smart grid and roll-out of smart meters, establish a full system of feed-in tariffs in electricity as well as the maintenance of banded renewable obligation certificates, introduce a floor price for carbon, and make efforts to persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning of Emissions Trading Scheme permits.

Nuclear

When the possibility of a coalition between the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties was first muted, the government’s future policy on nuclear power had the potential to be an area of considerable friction between the two coalition members. Nuclear power was one of the few policy areas where the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appeared to hold diametrically opposed positions. The Liberal Democrats have a long-standing opposition to nuclear power and their manifesto included an unequivocal promise that no new nuclear power stations would be built in the UK. By contrast, the Conservative party’s position was actively to support the building of new nuclear power stations provided they could be funded entirely from the private sector without governement subsidies.

In practice the two parties’ negotiating teams appear to have come to a compromise that broadly satisfies most party members despite the compromise position effectively being to adopt the Conservative Party’s policy.

The agreed position is that the coalition government will complete, and promote before Parliament, a national planning statement that will allow existing nuclear power stations to be replaced by new nuclear power stations. This new build project will be conditional on the new power stations being entirely funded by the private sector.

In recognition of the fact that for many Liberal Democratic voters the party’s stance in the nuclear debate was a defining aspect of the party — perhaps even, for some, the reason why they voted for the party — a Liberal Democrat spokesperson will be permitted to speak against the planning statement in the parliamentary debates on the new power stations. However, in the final parliamentary vote the Liberal Democrat MPs will not be permitted to vote against the coalition’s nuclear policy. Liberal Democrat MPs will be permitted to abstain in the vote, but as the Labour party supports the building of a new generation of nuclear power stations, the outcome of the vote is unlikely to be in doubt.

The French-owned company EDF Energy, which owns British Energy and already runs eight nuclear power stations in the UK, has repeated its belief that “nuclear power is the lowest cost low-carbon solution and can be built in the UK without subsidy.” The company commissioned a poll to gauge the public’s attitude to nuclear energy. Vincent de Rivaz, the chief executive of EDF Energy, says the results of the poll show “strong public support across voters from all three major political parties in favor of new nuclear build” and that opposition to new nuclear build has continued to fall. Even among Liberal Democrats, the poll apparently shows as many as 58% of supporters believe “nuclear energy has disadvantages, but the country needs it to be part of the energy balance,” while slightly fewer, 47%, are in favor of the construction of new nuclear power stations and only 32% are opposed.

Other Initiatives

In relation to non-nuclear power stations, the government has promised an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage facilities to meet the new standard. Generally, public sector investment in carbon capture and storage technology will be continued for four coal-fired power stations.

At sea, the government will introduce measures to encourage marine energy and will deliver an offshore electricity grid in order to support the development of a new generation of offshore wind power. The Liberal Democrats’ eye-catching manifesto promise to invest up to £400 million in the manufacture of offshore wind turbines and other marine renewable energy equipment in refurbished shipyards in the north of the UK has not found its way into the coalition’s policy objectives.

The government has announced its belief that the environment needs to be protected for future generations and our economy needs to be made environmentally sustainable including working towards a zero waste economy, measures to make the import or possession of illegal timber a criminal offence, and measures to promote green spaces and wildlife corridors in order to halt the loss of habitats and restore bio-diversity.

The coalition’s policy agreement has now been considered and approved by the Liberal Democrat party and the formal approval noted that the coalition’s policies implemented key manifesto commitments including “a fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener, [including] the creation of a green investment bank and measures to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

Perhaps as significant as the list of policies is the fact that the person appointed to be Energy and Climate Change Secretary in the new government is the Liberal Democrat’s former spokesman on the environment and shadow Home Secretary, Mr. Chris Huhne. Mr Huhne was the runner up in the campaign to become leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2006, and his campaign highlighted the need for energy conservation, the reduction of carbon emissions and the importance of environmentally-friendly “eco-taxes” to combat global warming and climate change. He was an early UK advocate of the importance of tackling climate change — “first and foremost among the environmental threats” as long ago as 1990 in his book Real World Economics.

With exception of the nuclear power station question, there are few areas of significant polemical difference between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties on green issues. The main differences are of form rather than substance. The Liberal Democrats’ pre-election environmental promises were more far reaching and detailed and, unlike the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats actively promoted the UK as having a global role in the green debate. There would seem to be few policy reasons why the Conservatives in the coalition would oppose the Liberal Democrats in pushing forward their green agenda. That being the case, Mr. Huhne may have an unprecedented opportunity to make this coalition government the greenest UK government.