The return of the politicians to the green economy fray

DSC_4004This post first appeared on BusinessGreen.

For three years business leaders and civil society have led the drive to decarbonise our economy. Politicians have remained almost silent. But this silence may be about to end.

Earlier this month, Ed Balls became the first big political figure to make a headline speech about climate change since the last general election. Though he has been exploring the barriers to low carbon investment behind closed doors for some time, many had come to presume it just wasn’t of interest to a politician at his level. But they were wrong. Why?

It’s what the country wants
Balls’ position was encapsulated when he was asked directly, in the questions after his speech to Green Alliance, whether Labour stood with leading European economies in backing renewable and efficiency targets for 2030. The room seemed ready for equivocation and ambiguity. Instead, he simply said “yes”, going on to quote polling data showing the British public supported that kind of policy. It was one of two big policy announcements on the night, alongside granting borrowing powers to the Green Investment Bank, and it distinguishes Labour not only from the Conservatives but from the Liberal Democrats as well.

Afterwards, I spoke to one of the shadow chancellor’s advisers, to get an idea of where he was coming from with these commitments. He told me that Ed Balls believed that it was an obvious choice, that this is where Europe is going and it’s what the country wants. He doesn’t want the UK to be in the backseat, wondering why we missed out on the investment, but to be driving the agenda.

Low carbon is no longer niche
He understands that, to have economic credibility, he needs to understand where the biggest potential UK investments are right now. Those are indisputably going into low carbon infrastructure. And this isn’t niche. They regularly feature on the front page of the FT, so it has to matter to someone who wants to run the economy. Referring to Green Alliance’s recent analysis of low carbon infrastructure, Balls himself said he was “particularly struck by the fact that, in offshore wind alone, investment planned and in the pipeline is worth more than all planned spending on gas, roads and airports combined”.

If the business case is obvious, the public support point is interesting. Ed Balls was referring to Yougov/Fabian polling, but he could just as easily have looked at UKERC data which shows huge support for climate action and renewables. Or, on the flip side, he could have looked at Lord Ashcroft’s polling into public support for Peter Bone’s Alternative Queen’s Speech. Thanks to Lord Ashcroft we can now say for certain that the great British public would sooner bring back hanging than see an end to government support for wind farms. The proposal to scrap DECC was the third least popular measure.

Politicians can’t ignore the mainstream
This shows the big distinction between what works for certain sections of the media and what works for a party wanting to form a government. It is profitable for The Spectator to play agent provocateur on climate science. For politicians, however, ignoring the mainstream means oblivion.

Only a handful of issues really matter during elections. These are the weather vane issues for the public, where the distinctions are made clear between the parties. Alongside these are the thousands of other issues that the general public is not expected to care about: no election is shaped by constitutional reform or industrial policy, even if they are the issues which shape the nation.

It looked like the environment would be a side issue in 2015. The Mail on Sunday would only moan about it, so why bother? Now politicians are beginning to realise that low carbon and sustainable economic practices are not only vital to our business interests, but also popular with the public. Who can afford to ignore them?

And so we see David Cameron quietly opening the London Array, and hinting about big investment announcements. We’re still a long way from his early days in power, when he proclaimed boldly that he believed in green growth “from the bottom of my heart,” but the long political silence has now been broken, if only by whispers. I’m willing to bet that the noise from the frontline will only get louder from now on.

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