Seven months of savage cuts leave coalition’s green hue fading

With the final nails hammered into the coffin of the Green Investment Bank, it’s time for a look bac

14 May: "This will be the greenest government ever", pledges David Cameron, three days after the formation of the coalition government. He announces his commitment to the 10:10 campaign, saying that all government departments will cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 10 per cent before the end of 2010.

29 June: The government's Green Investment Bank Commission predicts that £550bn of investment will be needed to meet Britain's renewable energy targets under the Climate Change Act, and recommends the establishment of a Green Investment Bank to meet the challenge by providing finance for clean-power stations, windfarms and smart grids. Experts agree on a fundamental principle: to be capable of kick-starting private-sector investment in potentially risky renewable projects, the GIB must have the ability to issue government-backed "green bonds" to raise money. This kicks off a feud between the bank's backers – led by Chris Huhne – and the Treasury, in which there could only ever be one winner.

16 July: The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announces a £34m cut to its low-carbon technology programme, including a £12m cut to the Carbon Trust, which provides funding to sustainable technology and businesses.

22 July: The Sustainable Development Commission is axed on the day of the first great quango cull. Environmentalists question the value of the move: the £3m per year it cost to run the SDC was a negligible saving, far outweighed by the estimated £70m the SDC saved the taxpayer annually by recommending green efficiency savings. Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), says the decision was an easy one: because she is "personally dedicated to driving the sustainability agenda across government", there is no longer any need for external agencies.

8 August: More good news! All new homes will run on green power by 2016. That, at least, is the improbable but cheery-sounding claim of the housing minister Grant Shapps. Developers that fail to meet the target must pay a levy to fund local renewable energy projects. As Shapps pointed out, being so very green, the coalition government hardly had a choice in the matter. "We are committed to being the greenest government ever," said Shapps, "and an essential part of that is to ensure that all homes in the future will be built without emitting any carbon."

20 September: Two election pledges are struck from the list of things that the coalition might bring itself to do something about. The government will not carry out its proposal to make it an offence to possess illegally felled timber or to bring it into the country; nor will it extend the subsidy for small-scale solar production under the Feed-In Tariff.

20 October (the Spending Review): This is the point where it really starts to look bad for the greenest government ever, as George Osborne's axe falls hard on environmental spending.

  • The review includes proposals to sell off national nature reserves, privatise parts of the Forestry Commission and sell off the Met Office (which has contributed as much as any organisation to the public understanding of climate change).
  • The review cuts Defra's budget by 30 per cent, compared to a government average of 19 per cent, equating to efficiency savings of £700m by end of the four-year review period. Chris Huhne's tiny DECC gets away with an 18 per cent cut.
  • The Environment Agency will shed 5,000-8,000 out of 30,000 jobs, while Natural England's budget is cut by 30 per cent – about 800 full-time jobs. Flood defence spending will be cut by 27 per cent (though citizens of the "big society" are pleased to learn that they will be allowed to pitch in themselves).
  • Confusion about the GIB: Clegg writes to his party members telling them that £2bn has been set aside, but Osborne says £1bn.

21 October: Huhne tells the Guardian that the government may sell off one-third of Urenco, a company that makes enriched uranium for nuclear power – and that the money raised may fund the GIB. £1bn probably isn't enough for a proper bank, but still – better than nothing.

25 October: Caroline Spelman announces that 150,000 hectares of forest may be sold off by the government.

18 November: Chris Huhne signals his frustration with the Treasury, which is continuing to oppose the Green Investment Bank, preferring to repackage some existing green pledges in a sparkly new fund. An anonymous member of the GIB commission says: "Frankly, if it doesn't [have the ability to raise money by issuing government-backed bonds] there's no point in it existing. If we were only ever going to do one thing, the green bond is the thing we need to do . . ."

18 November (continued): Later that day, Cameron puts these fears to rest in a rare speech on the environment. The GIB will be a proper bank, he promises. The Labour MP Joan Walley asks whether it would really be a bank with the ability to issue money, whether a dispute was likely between the Department for Business and the Treasury, and whether he would take a personal interest. Cameron replies: "Yes, yes and yes, to all of those questions."

25 November: Oops! Grant Shapps messed up back in August when he said that all homes must be zero-carbon by 2016. What he meant to say was, "Some homes, but not all, will probably be zero-carbon by 2016."

19 November: Chris Huhne's frustrations in pursuit of his bank spill over into an open attack on the Treasury. He compares its obdurate opposition to the bank with the mistakes that led to the Great Depression.

15 December: The Treasury gets its wish: there will be no GIB. Huhne acknowledges that the "bank" will in fact be merely a green fund, and is also forced humiliatingly into repudiating his principles, saying that sustainability must not take precedence over cutting the deficit. The £550bn Britain needs to meet its emissions targets will have to come from somewhere else.

The greenest government ever – the seven-month summary: Forests for sale, a slashed green-tech budget, no green bank, flood defence budget hammered, no independent sustainability watchdog. But, looking on the bright side, developers will be allowed to build energy-inefficient houses for a few more years at least, and you can still import illegally logged timber if you like.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.