Osborne encircled on green targets

Businesses join the call for the government to adopt a 2030 decarbonisation target.

Two groups of businesses have joined calls today for the government to adopt a target to decarbonise the power sector by 2030. It leaves George Osborne with few friends for his pro-gas, anti-green approach a year to the day after he warned the Conservative party conference that, "We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business."

Two letters to Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, calling for a 2030 target have been published today. A letter coordinated by the Aldersgate Group was signed by Asda, Aviva, Alliance Boots, BT, British American Tobacco, Cisco, EDF, Eurostar, Marks & Spencer, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Philips, Reed Elsevier, Sky, The Co-operative and Tridos Bank among others. It says:

"The government's perceived commitment to the low carbon transition is being undermined by recent statements calling for unabated gas in the power sector beyond 2030 and the absence of a specific carbon intensity target."

A second letter, leaked to the Times, is signed by Siemens, Alstom UK, Mitsubishi Power Systems, Areva, Doosan, Gamesa and Vestas. It says:

"Historically the UK has benefited from being known as a country with low political risk for energy investments. Undermining that reputation would have damaging consequences for the scale of future investments in the UK energy sector. It is important to protect that reputation carefully...

"We consider that a binding 2030 target for power sector decarbonisation would help to reduce the political risk currently associated with long term UK industrial investment."

Over the summer, two senior Tories joined the call for a 2030 decarbonisation target. Tim Yeo, Chair of the Energy and Climate Change select committee, published pre-legislative scrutiny of the energy bill calling for a 2030 target. In the FT, Yeo called for the government "[to] set a clear target to largely decarbonise the electricity sector by 2030, giving investors certainty about the direction of energy policy."

Lord Deben, formerly John Gummer, a minister in John Major's government, has recently become chair of the Committee on Climate Change. He wrote a letter to Ed Davey endorsing a 2030 target on the grounds that it would help bring forward the necessary investments “at least cost to the consumers.”

In recent weeks, the Labour Party and the Lib Dems have added their support to demands for a 2030 decarbonisation target. It leaves Osborne isolated in his view, captured in a letter earlier this summer to Davey, which called for, "agreement that we will not set any further decarbonisation or deployment targets beyond those we already have, for example 2030 targets for electricity emissions or renewable deployment."

The business community will be hoping that the Chancellor changes his mind today.

Recently installed wind turbines generate electricty in the shadow of Drax, Europe's biggest coal fired power station. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.