I was having dinner with a former US colleague when I realised how far UK leadership on the environment had weakened. I used to feel pity for US environmentalists, and now I felt a twinge of envy. She described the meticulous preparation of the Obama’s team before its recent announcements on climate change, the rallying of movers and shakers to back up the White House push, and I was reminded of how effective political leadership could be in forging a new policy direction. It seemed impossible a year ago that the US would give up on its high carbon ways and now it seems normal that it is regulating against new coal power plants, the biggest point source of carbon.
The UK has led in the past
The UK has shown similar leadership under Conservative and Labour governments. Britain as the dirty man of Europe? Not after the Environment Agency was set up in 1995 by John Major’s government and regulated for cleaner lakes, rivers and coasts. The UK a minnow in the renewables market? Not once Labour introduced the Renewables Obligation and threw its weight behind the offshore wind industry.
The coalition government has had a harder job to pull off such transformations with tough economic conditions and fewer low hanging fruit. However, in its first 18 months it did impress: a strong decision on the fourth carbon budget, the commitment to scrap Heathrow’s proposed third runway, and a clear strategy to restore Britain’s besieged natural habitats.
Momentum has now been lost
Three years on and it feels very different. All three of the flagship policies above are under review or been undermined by weak delivery. The coalition has lost its early momentum as a reforming government seeking to be green. The Green Standard 2013 review, published recently by Green Alliance and six other leading green NGOs, shows how it has happened. It charts the highs as well of the lows of ministerial performance, but concludes that all party leaders have failed to champion the UK’s environmental interests effectively.
In private the three party leaders remain enthusiastic about environmental stewardship, but in public they rarely make the case. The vacuum they have left has been filled by those who want to blame high environmental standards for our economic troubles. As a result the quality of the public debate has lowered, and business confidence in long run policy has fallen.
Politicians need to put their mouths where our money is
The paradox is that the UK is investing billions in greening its economy. There remains overwhelming public support for nature conservation, renewable energy and better transport. But politicians need to put their mouths where our money is and celebrate our progress. This would begin to restore private sector confidence, and drive new investment. In fact, low carbon transport and energy projects are such a dominant part of the UK’s infrastructure pipeline that it can make a big contribution to economic recovery in the next few years.
There are some signs that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have clocked this, but the Conservative Party remains deeply divided. The next year will show us whether any of the parties manage to translate this opportunity into new programmes for their manifestos, and whether Cameron, Miliband or Clegg can rebuild the case for the environmental modernisation of Britain. The alternative is that environmental debate will become more polarised, investment will be lost, and energy, nature and transport policies will risk becoming partisan battle grounds, just as they did in the US.