Is the Government sticking two fingers up to everyone fighting climate change?

Craig Bennett

31 July 2015

  • Catastrophic assault on UK environment
  • Clean energy hit with tax used to penalise polluting power plants
  • Fracking to be allowed in precious wildlife sites
  • Renewables told to go it alone. Nuclear, oil & gas soak up billions of subsidies
  • Hybrid cars will pay same Vehicle Excise Duty as gas guzzlers
  • All this when the science is clear: get off fossil fuels fast

Rise up for the climate

Last week was the worst week for the UK environment I could remember.

In 5 short days David Cameron’s Conservative Government took aim at anything green and shot to kill.

It added solar power, home insulation and bees to the roll call of victims since May that already included onshore wind, the Green Investment Bank, Zero Carbon Homes and incentives for greener cars.

Not content only with dismantling pro-environment policies, George Osborne’s Treasury has conjured new, destructive ones to rub salt in the wound. Fracking – roundly rejected by the communities it’s menacingly foisted upon – is to be allowed in our most precious wildlife sites. Drilling through aquifers also gets the green light. Two new gas power stations have been given the nod.

The ultimate prize for policy chutzpah goes to George Osborne’s new carbon tax for renewables.

Yep, you read that right; the “Climate Change Levy” designed to penalise polluting power plants is now going to be applied to clean energy. As Friends of the Earth said, it’s like putting an alcohol tax on apple juice.

But if this new Government’s policies are dreadful, the accompanying rhetoric is utterly detached from reality, hypocritical, and nakedly ideological.

Last Friday Amber Rudd, the Climate Change Secretary (whose appointment was originally welcomed by Friends of the Earth), delivered a speech emphasising the importance of action on climate change. I would welcome such an intervention, all things being equal. The words in the speech were all fine in their own right. But with a wrecking ball adorned with the words “green crap” (as David Cameron allegedly calls environmental policies) merrily swinging as she speaks, how can she expect us to take her at her word?

Rudd spoke of a desire to “encourage [low carbon] businesses to innovate, grow and create jobs”. They’re trying, but time and time again business voices tell us they need bold, long-term and consistent policy frameworks to send clear signals to the market and give them the confidence to scale up investment in low carbon technologies. Not chopping and changing of policy.

Rudd says her Government can “set the direction, set the vision, set the ambition… We can create the framework, create the rules, provide the support, predictability and stability needed”.

But in less than 90 days, this Govt has dismantled those frameworks, without putting anything new in its place, destroying investor confidence, and hammering a British success story.

For many green businesses, speeches like Rudd's will ring hollow. In contrast Osborne’s menacing “we won’t save the planet by putting the country out of business” words still ring loudly in their ears. I know. I’ve spoken to plenty of low-carbon business investors this last week.

And for the thousands of workers employed in the green economy (the bit of the economy that grew 5% a year during the double dip recession) Rudd's words will not compensate the very real threats to livelihoods caused by three months' green bashing.

These are the jobs that can usher in a clean, long-term rejuvenation of the UK's industrial towns and ports. Why crush them?

Then there’s the hypocrisy. Support for renewables must “help technologies eventually stand on their own two feet, not encourage a permanent reliance on subsidy”, according to Rudd. I agree. As does everyone in the renewables industry.

But where’s the pep talk to the 70-year-old nuclear industry, whose costs continue to soar despite once promising electricity too cheap to meter?

Where’s the insistence that it, too, must stand on its own feet? The silence is deafening. The financial support is eye-watering: 35 year contracts at twice the wholesale market price, representing bill-payer funded subsidies running into billions, most of which will line the pockets of state-owned utility companies abroad.

And what does the Government have to say about all the hidden subsidies for oil and gas, totalling £3bn in new tax breaks in last parliament alone? Or the Capacity Market, an obscure mechanism designed to keep old power plants hanging on, whose funding - via consumer bills, just like renewables - has quietly increased to £1.3bn this week?

Right now, there’s little to stop our oldest and dirtiest coal plants seeking these tax payer handouts this autumn.

It's clear as day: one rule for fossil fuels, another for renewables and energy saving.

We all know that the most effective way to reduce bills is to conserve energy, to use less of the stuff. The cost of building renewables is high in the short term and negligible in the long – the fuel is free, after all. So killing energy efficiency projects and clamping down on renewables is, I’m afraid, inviting charges of hypocrisy when the changes are made in the name of “protecting consumers” and “bringing down bills”.

And then finally there’s the naked ideology. None of this is driven by science or evidence, as the PM would have us believe.

The science is clear: get off fossil fuels fast, ramp up clean energy, hugely invest in energy saving. David Cameron is wilfully ignoring it, delivering instead an agenda that neatly sums up the zealous, anti-renewables, anti-environment ideology of a small handful of what he would probably once have called swivel-eyed loons on his own back benches.

These same voices are those who shout loudest about the energy crisis we are facing. They are right: after decades of this country prioritising fossil fuels, nuclear and ignoring energy saving, we are facing an energy crisis. Their solution? To continue prioritising fossil fuels, nuclear and ignore energy saving.

It's old, failed thinking stuck on repeat.

All in all, it’s been a grotesque 90 days of ideological enviro-bashing from an administration that, even now, trots out the “greenest government ever” line with a straight face.

Without a monumental about turn, UK credibility will be in tatters at the Paris climate talks at the end of the year. Perhaps this Government just doesn’t care. Perhaps the intention is simply to turn up and present two fingers to those nations demonstrating commitment to tackling climate change.

“You turn green if you want to. The Lady Britannia is no longer for turning”. It’ll certainly make the fracking industry happy.

Rise up for the climate

Craig Bennett is CEO of Friends of the Earth

Follow him on Twitter: @craigbennett3

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cameron attacks renewables