Danny Alexander is right to recognise Liberal Democrats will not be forgiven for delivering George Osborne’s attacks on the environment. Alexander’s ‘Generating Growth and Jobs in a Time of Austerity’ conference motion is pretty bold and we hope it is an opening salvo in a serious re-adjustment in the Liberal Democrats’ environment agenda in Government.
Alexander’s intervention is needed. Osborne has seized the environment as an issue and is using it to play to the Tory right in an attempt to save his political skin. This has involved much tilting at wind turbines and charming his friends and relatives by proposing a dash for gas – last week’s announcement on new North Sea drilling was largely made possible by his exceedingly generous tax breaks for fossil fuels.
Osborne even had the audacity to try to force Energy Secretary Ed Davey into an unholy deal – a concession over the Renewables Obligation support for wind energy in return for agreement to promote climate-busting new gas in our future energy mix. As Friends of the Earth has previously argued, Ed Davey must stand up to this pressure. This autumn the Government’s gas strategy and the latest draft of the Energy Bill will be announced and we will see whether he’s managed to hold firm.
Danny Alexander’s motion pushes back on Osborne’s regressive approach. It calls for action on two issues which Friends of the Earth thinks are central to the Government getting it right on climate: strengthening the Green Investment Bank, and decarbonising our electricity sector by 2030. Alexander is to be commended for understanding the importance of these issues and setting Liberal Democrats on a course for change.
But Alexander’s motion proposals will have to be tightened to deliver the action needed. We hope delegates at the Lib Dem conference will take every opportunity to do so. It’s worth getting it right – for political credibility and economic as well as environmental reasons.
The Green Bank needs to be able to borrow now instead of waiting until economic recovery, because green investment will help to dig Britain out of its financial mess. A new CBI report shows that the UK has the ability to become a global front-runner in low-carbon products and services, which could add £20 billion extra in annual GDP by 2015. The green economy is growing faster than the polluting brown economy – and we need the Bank to be fully functioning to keep driving that success forward.
And if we are going to cut the carbon from our electricity by 2030, we need a huge shift away from increasingly costly fossil fuels onto home-grown energy from our sun, wind and sea – central to Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy campaign.
That will only happen with the right political framework. Alexander’s motion on energy decarbonisation should call for the Government to accept, not defy, the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change that “[Ministers] must rule out the dash for gas, and set clear carbon objectives in the context of draft energy legislation and the forthcoming gas generation strategy.” The Committee wrote to Ed Davey in March specifically to recommend a carbon objective of 50 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour by 2030 – explaining it is the level needed to decarbonise our electricity and the cheapest way to meet our legal commitment to tackling climate change.
Friends of the Earth and many other environment NGOs are very concerned that despite protesting opposition to Osborne’s approach, Ed Davey – who as Energy and Climate Change Secretary should be leading the fight – is still not saying he accepts the Committee’s advice and will act on it. Liberal Democrats at conference can help get the party back on track on the environment by backing policy that both supports the Committee’s recommendation and will see it delivered. The environment movement and many voters who backed Liberal Democrats at the last election will be watching this year’s conference motion with interest. But the real test is whether this autumn’s Energy Bill will deliver a clear path to a zero-carbon electricity system. Liberal Democrat Ministers must draw a green line of principle and block Osborne’s dash for gas that shows reckless disregard for our climate change obligations.
Danny Alexander has made a good start.