Is this the end of the "greenest government ever"?

Campaigners say coalition is "the most environmentally destructive government" since birth of modern

It was always questionable that a government which cut fuel duty, hit the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the biggest cut in Whitehall, and turned a carbon-cutting incentive into a stealth tax could justifiably continue to claim it was the "greenest ever".

But let's just remember for a moment that the good intentions were there. When David Cameron came to power, pledged to make this "the greenest government ever", he said that he "cared passionately" about this agenda, and appeared to genuinely believe that there were possibilities in boosting environmental initatives:

We've got a real opportunity to drive the green economy to have green jobs, green jobs and make sure we have our share of the industries of the future.

Predictably, this has not been borne out. As soon became clear, the Green Investment Bank, oft-cited by ministers stressing their green credentials, will not be able to borrow for years, while George Osborne's Budget earlier this year cut fuel duty, and the government slashed subsidies for solar power.

Last week's Autumn Statement offered no improvement, with Osborne almost directly contradicting Cameron's earlier statement:

We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers. All we will be doing is exporting valuable jobs out of Britain.

In addition to this support for heavy industry, he spoke of the "ridiculous cost" that EU intiatives on the environment were imposing on firms, and emphasised the burden that green policies were placing on the economy. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Environment Secretary, is said to be furious, having not been consulted.

It seems that this marks the end of the "greenest government ever" fallacy -- and a wide-range of environmental groups and activists have written to the Observer to mark their disapproval. One letter, from the heads of Greenpeace and the RSPB (among others) says:

Following the chancellor's autumn statement, we can say that the coalition is on a path to becoming the most environmentally destructive government to hold power in this country since the modern environmental movement was born.

At the heart of the problem is not just austerity, but the perception in government that pursuing green policies is an inconvenient burden on the economy rather than a necessity and an opportunity. Cameron's comments at the start of his premiership indicated that he understood the possibilities for jobs and growth afforded by a re-engineering of how the UK generates and uses its energy. The government's own National Ecosystem Assessment reiterated this.

Climate change talks in Durban are ongoing. But if the coalition continues to treat green issues as a hindrance to growth, not a boost, there is no doubt that the UK will fall behind.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.