Anyone remember, 3 days after coalition took power, David Cameron making his promise to lead the “greenest Government ever”? I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t, it’s hardly up there with the Kennedy assassination or the Moon landing, but nonetheless it was an important pledge at an important time for environmental policy and if you’re going to make a statement like that at a time when the world’s attention is focussed on you have to expect that you’ll be judged on it.
So how does Mr Cameron and his coalition measure up? The public perception is that he comes up well short. A recent YouGov poll revealed that as few as 1 in 50 believe that his is delivering on his “greenest ever” pledge with 1 in 10 saying that this Government was actually less green than most previous Governments. That’s the perception, what about the facts?
The Green Deal
The biggest positive for the Government in its quest to be green is the Green Deal Scheme. This is an ambitious project to increase the energy efficiency of up to 14 million homes by offering cheap loans to pay for things like insulation, draught proofing and more efficient heating systems. The loans are structured in such a way as to ensure (theoretically at least) that the energy bill savings which result from the improvements are greater than the repayments so that with no initial outlay by the home owner he has nothing to lose.
Critics say that the Green Deal is just a cynical attempt to get rid of the subsidies provided schemes like the feed in tariff, renewable heat incentive and others. Proponents on the other hand point to the fact that the best way to cut fuel bills and reduce carbon emissions is to reduce energy use rather than encourage the use of renewable energy and the Green Deal does this where other schemes do not. They also make the point that funding for any subsidy scheme will run out eventually whereas the Green Deal is sustainable long term.
Solar Panel Subsidy Cuts and Future Spending Plans
In terms of environmental policy the biggest, or at least the most well publicised act of the coalition has been to cut the subsidies paid to the owners of solar panels. The feed in tariff was a scheme introduced by Labour under which installers of solar panels receive a payment in pence per kilowatt hour for each kilowatt hour of energy that their solar panels produce. Although they are paid for producing it, they actually get to keep the electricity for their own use.
At the outset the rate was 43.1p per kwh. In less than two years in charge the coalition has cut this in half. It is true that cuts to the rate were always part of the plan, the idea being that as the solar panel market grew the cost of new installations would fall so that the same percentage returns could be achieved with a lower tariff rate, but the scale of the cuts and the handling of them has drawn widespread criticism and have demonstrated an apparent lack of support for solar subsidies within the coalition.
Expensive though it may be, the feed in tariff scheme appeared to be producing the desired result, with tens of thousands getting involved and effectively reducing the carbon emissions from their homes by almost half. It may now die a death and if the Green deal does not prove an effective replacement the coalition may lose a lot of credibility with environmentalists.
Green Spending and Rhetoric
As well as cutting solar power subsidies and other schemes such as the Warm Front, the Government has come in for criticism over the collapse of a £1 billion project with Scottish Power to build a carbon capture and storage facility. In fact, since it came to power, the United Kingdom has gone from being the world’s 3rd biggest investor in green technologies to 13th. This is a pretty damning statistic however you look at it.
As well as the hard facts of the reduced investment, since his bold statement three days into his term, Cameron has failed to make a single speech on climate change. His Chancellor, George Osborne on the other hand has, saying that the UK would cut carbon emissions “no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe” and repeatedly criticising green policies as being too costly. Osborne is not alone either; a letter from 101 Conservative MPs attacking onshore wind farms makes it pretty clear where the party as a whole stands on the issue.
The Verdict on the “Greenest Government Ever”
Cameron said all the rights things during the election campaign, and who can forget him cycling to Westminster in his ridiculous helmet and bicycle clips, but beyond the PR he and his Government have done little to back up their promises on the environment. If the Prime Minister truly wants to be remembered as an environmental reformer he needs to rein in his party and in particular his Chancellor quickly and take one of two roads. He either needs to start investing hard cash in environmental projects or imposing harsher tax penalties on flagrant wasters of energy.
Neither approach will be popular in these tough economic times but then great reformers are like great artists, they are rarely appreciated until they’re gone.
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