Tim Yeo is right to challenge Osborne's anti-green agenda

The Lib Dems need to resist the Chancellor's short-term thinking.

Tim Yeo, Conservative MP and chair of the energy and climate change select committee, has issued a stinging rebuke to George Osborne’s Treasury for their meddling in the design of the government’s flagship energy bill. He has called for Ed Davey’s department to "escape the control of the Treasury" which "has never been signed up to the green agenda".

Yeo’s select committee publish their pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft energy bill today. The report highlights the battle that Davey and DECC are losing to Osborne and the Treasury. Three major concerns are highlighted.

First, the proposed "contracts for difference," which are meant to encourage investment in low-carbon energy production, are criticised as "unworkable". Writing in today’s Financial Times, Yeo outlines how the simple, long-term contracts underwritten by the Treasury which were proposed in DECC’s original consultation "rang alarm bells in the Treasury". As a result they were "struck out of the draft bill" and replaced with "an alternative contract system so complex and confusing it may not be legally enforceable".

The committee go on to set out related concerns around the contractual regime. These include concerns that:

  • The reforms may squeeze smaller independent companies out of the electricity market resulting in even greater levels of market concentration;
  • A cap on green levies imposed by the Treasury may result in higher costs for consumers; and
  • The proposed process for setting the guaranteed price that nuclear generators can expect to receive for creating electricity "lacks sufficient transparency"

Second, Yeo’s committee says that the government should "set a clear target to largely decarbonise the electricity sector by 2030, giving investors certainty about the direction of energy policy." This follows pressure from a number of NGOs and think tanks, including IPPR, which submitted evidence to the review. The government’s advisory body, the committee on climate change, had stated that "the carbon intensity of power will need to fall from around 500g/kWh today to 50g/kWh in 2030". But the draft energy bill reduced this ambition by stating only that ‘power sector emissions need to be largely decarbonised by the 2030s’ with carbon emissions intensity at 100gCO2/kWh.

In our submission we stated that:

“The bill should be explicitly tied to the carbon budgets by setting a target to r educe the carbon intensity of the grid to 50gCO2/kWh by 2030. This is the most important step the government can take to provide certainty to industry about the direction for the energy market.”

The select committee has adopted our suggestion and recommends that:

“The Government should set a 2030 carbon intensity target for the electricity sector in secondary legislation based on the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change.”

In a leaked letter, Osborne has explicitly called for Davey to reject this recommendation on grounds that it would be "inefficient" and "inflexible" and, instead, support polluting, "unabated gas" up to 2030 and beyond. Davey must reject his advice and heed Greenpeace’s warning that "the 2030 goal is the most significant test of the Lib Dems energy and environment credentials. If they cave in now they will be judged to have failed."

Third, the select committee report says the draft bill is "fundamentally flawed by the lack of consideration given to demand-side measures, which are potentially the cheapest methods of decarbonising our electricity system." They estimate that current policy is only delivering around one-third of the potential reduction in energy demand that is needed by 2030. Among other ideas they call for "the draft Bill to provide the Secretary of State with powers to introduce a Feed In Tariff for energy efficiency, if this cannot be achieved through existing legislation."

Yeo’s outspoken attack on the Treasury, which refused to give evidence to the select committee, shows that concerns about Osborne’s role extend deep within the Conservative party. But the report also shows that, once again, the Lib Dems are losing out to the Tories in Whitehall. To step out of the shadow of his predecessor, Davey must go back to the drawing board and develop proposals which will keep energy bills down, improve competition and encourage essential investment, rather than deferring to the short-term thinking of Osborne.

Conservative MP Tim Yeo said the Treasury had "never been signed up to the green agenda". Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times