Three days after becoming Prime Minister in 2010 David Cameron went to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and declared that this would be “the greenest government ever”. He went on to say “There is a fourth minister in this department who cares passionately about your agenda, and that is me, the Prime Minister. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.” Five years later has that ambition been realised?
Mr Cameron believes it has. This claim rests on how the Government has implemented the Climate Change Act – brought into law by the previous Labour Government. The Government has set out a series of carbon budgets designed to meet its target of reducing emissions by at least 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. Four of these budgets have now been passed into law, with the fourth promising a 50 per cent reduction as soon as 2025.
In addition to this, the Coalition has been able to double renewable electricity and has created the world’s first low carbon electricity market. Despite the weaknesses of the two key mechanisms under Electricty Market Reform (EMR) – the Contracts for Difference scheme and the Capacity Market – EMR has attracted tens of billions of pounds of infrastructure investment creating huge numbers of green jobs across Britain with the purpose of delivering the low carbon energy and reliable supplies that the UK needs.
But many will be reflecting on how much more this Government could have done.
This Coalition has cut back on energy efficiency measures, neglected advancements in carbon capture and storage, resisted measures to combat air pollution and announced apparent war on onshore wind farms.
Cameron has defended his government’s hostility to new onshore wind, claiming the public were “frankly fed up” of wind turbines. Nonetheless, speaking to the Liaison Committee last November the Prime Minister said the the UK was heading for a situation where around ten per cent of its electricity would come from onshore wind. This, he noted, was enough as part of a balanced energy supply and therefore subsidies for the technology should be withdrawn.
Some will argue that successive governments have concentrated far too much on onshore wind at the expense of other technologies though restricting it to 10 per cent of generation is surely too little. And he is wrong about public opinion. Polling conducted by ComRes on behalf of The Whitehouse Consultancy last year found that 62% of Britons would be happy to have an onshore wind development in their local area. Even in rural areas, more than half the people polled said they would have no objections to living near a wind farm. This sits in stark contrast to the 78% of Tory MPs who say they wouldn’t want a windfarm to be built in their constituency. Fracking is only half as popular as onshore wind with over 200 local protest groups already formed to resist it before any shale or gas has been produced. And yet the Government’s rhetoric is to plough on with an aggressive fracking programme.
Under the Coalition we have seen the first new nuclear plant for a generation at Hinkley C but many question the extortionately expensive deal for the plant and whether nuclear can ever be green anyway.
The Government’s performance on renewable energy was neatly reflected in the budget last week. Talk about facilitating the UK’s move away from reliance on fossil fuels was put into action with an announcement that the Government plans to subsidise the Swansea tidal lagoon – a giant man-made lagoon generating power to run 120,000 homes for 120 years and save 236,000 tonnes in carbon dioxide emissions a year. But as the Government gave to the environment with one hand, it took with the other announcing a series of tax reforms for the North Sea to encourage mature oil fields to continue production. Unsurprisingly this a move which green groups have condemned as harming the UK’s ability to diversify its energy mix and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.
Perhaps this is the greenest government ever. But Cameron has been clinging to a far too restrictive view of greenery.
So what next? The election result on 7 May remains deeply uncertain. And so too the future for renewable energy in the next Parliament. This makes the need for retained public affairs support all the more pressing.