HomeGreening the economyNever turn your back on a crumb

Never turn your back on a crumb

Wind Turbine and sun from belowThis post first appeared on Business Green.

It’s sometimes hard to know if we’re winning or losing.

Last weekend we learned from Greenpeace that “in pushing for a 50 per cent European carbon cut by 2030, Ed Davey and the Prime Minister have secured a rare outbreak of Cabinet common sense on climate policy”. But, meanwhile, the Guardian told us that this was just “a sop to environment campaigners,” while the government risked “tens of billions of pounds of green investment” by opposing a renewables target. Just to make things as clear as mud, the CBI said that the government announcement had given “a clear UK position on a single 2030 emissions reduction target [that] will help reassure investors.”

Reconciling such contradictory perspectives, and working out if something represents a good outcome or a bad one, can be particularly hard for green thinkers. This is partly because of the scale of the problem – how can small crumbs of progress be celebrated en route, given the huge challenge of mitigating global climate change? Of course, all sides want to spin to win, and all journalists dramatise positions into black and white, right and wrong. This happens even more in the context of climate change.

For instance, in the hour or so it took for Tim Yeo to explain last week that, despite one report suggesting otherwise, he still very much believed in man-made climate change, several news articles and a headlined comment piece welcoming his apparent “conversion” immediately mushroomed.

So what – and who – should we believe? Statistics are notoriously malleable when someone’s trying to make a point, but nevertheless, here are some numbers:

4.5 per cent
The UK’s emissions increased last year by 4.5 per cent. Coal had a bigger share of our electricity market than it’s had since 1996.

This is why the UK’s position on the carbon target is so critical. Far from a sop, pushing for a 50 per cent carbon cut represents the quickest way of killing the future of coal in Europe. Yes, opposing a renewables target is short-sighted of the government, but let’s not mistake the cart for the horse.

97 per cent
Installations of cavity wall insulation have fallen by 97 per cent, compared to the same time last year. While the government predicted a reduction as the Green Deal came into force, this precipitate drop shows the vital importance of retaining momentum when it comes to energy efficiency. So it’s great that the government, by trying to create a demand reduction market, is making it clear that reducing energy usage shouldn’t be considered a charitable act but a market opportunity. A capacity market won’t deliver all the drivers we need, but it’s another crumb: the beginnings of an efficiency industry. Which brings me neatly to:

Just 10 years ago the renewables industry in this country was tiny, barely even registering on the grid – just a crumb. Now, according to the Treasury’s pipeline, it attracts the single biggest private investment into UK infrastructure. With 3.3GW in current capacity, we generate more electricity in offshore wind than the rest of the world combined. Ernst and Young confirms our ambition by ranking the UK as the top country for future offshore wind investment as well.

200 and counting
That scale of investment is why an amazingly broad coalition, of over 200 organisations, support a target to clean our electricity grid by 2030. Where else would you see Plaid Cymru alongside Microsoft, or the National Farmers’ Union cheek by jowl with Sky? The Environment Agency, the University of Exeter and the Women’s Institute – all see how much we have gained through former decisive green leadership, and how much potential there is if the necessary certainty can be obtained.

This week is the Energy Bill’s big moment; today and tomorrow, the most important amendments will be debated and voted on. Will Tim Yeo’s decarbonisation target amendment be recognised as wielding comprehensive public and business support? Will Alan Whitehead’s energy efficiency offering bring out the true potential for demand reduction? If they don’t succeed, the fight will carry on in the Lords, and beyond.

We need to have grand ambitions. We need to challenge ourselves to achieve. But we shouldn’t knock the progress we make along the way for being insufficient. Look at how past legislative change came about – with the US civil rights movement, a huge national coalition pushed their politicians for change, but through the 40s and 50s progress stalled because of a few belligerent politicians with a bulwark of media support.

When future Vice President Hubert Humphrey decided to support a timid civil rights act through the Senate in the late 1950s, his liberal friends thought it wasn’t significant enough to deserve their vote. But he argued that it was worthwhile, explaining he’d learned in politics: “Never turn your back on a crumb.”

We are only beginning to map the reach of the green economy, here in the UK, in Europe and around the world, and each crumb is bigger than the last. Because, as Lyndon Johnson commented on the same civil rights legislation, once you break through, “it’ll be easier next time”.

Written by

Alastair joined Green Alliance in January 2012 as the senior policy adviser leading Green Alliance's Political Leadership theme. He manages the Climate Leadership Programme for MPs and joint advocacy work with the NGO community.

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