How British industry is missing out on the green economy

Where's that rose garden Cameron promised?

David Cameron’s husky-hugging Rose Garden pledge to deliver the greenest government ever always felt more like a marketing or branding statement than a policy, containing as it did no specific description of what on earth that would mean in practice. Nevertheless, as a statement of intent it was very powerful.

However, a little over thirty months on from the Rose Garden conference, and Cameron’s pledge to make the Conservatives the environmental party is probably the most discredited of all his pre-election gambits. Remember “Vote Blue Go Green?” – it all seems quite a long time ago. Because despite the strictures imposed by the 2008 Climate Change Act, a series of policy u-turns, relaxations of environmental ambitions and a drip feed of rhetoric stressing the costs rather than the benefits of moving to a green economy, have together contributed to a situation where there is little leadership on the green agenda.

That’s why 11 major property and construction organisations, representing a huge swathe of the £100bn UK industry, last week signed a letter to chancellor George Osborne calling for the government to back a campaign by Building magazine to get behind the green agenda – or risk losing forever the potential the sector holds for major economic growth. The signatories of the letter, and the wider backers of the campaign, represent an unprecedented alliance of interests, from brick-makers and builders to the high-finance property companies that own and develop in our major cities.

The hope is that this unusual alliance, taking in environmentally committed big name architects such as Richard (Lord) Rogers, and red-in-tooth-and-claw housebuilders, will persuade the Chancellor that business doesn’t actually see sustainability and economic growth as something you have to choose between – that you can do both. That, in fact one drives the other: a move toward environmental sustainability will actually deliver growth.

At the moment Osborne has been very clear that this is not how he views the world, telling the Tory conference in 2011 that “a decade of environmental laws and regulations are piling costs on the energy bills of households and companies” and that he wasn’t going to “save the planet” by “putting the country out of business.”

It’s not as if the whole government sees things in the same way: many departments are doing what they can to fight the scepticism from the centre. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as the Confederation of British Industry (that bastion of environmental activism) has called for investment in green growth, saying the “market” accounts for £122bn, or 8 per cent of GDP, and may have accounted for a third of all growth in the economy in 2011/12. But one who has seen government operating up close, former construction tsar Paul Morrell, couldn’t have been clearer when he testified in December: “There clearly is no belief inside Treasury that there is real opportunity of growth in the green agenda. I don’t know why they think that, [because] oddly business does.”

This lack of belief explains a lot – from the government’s u-turns on subsidies for solar power which led directly to one contractor, Carillion, putting 5,000 staff on notice; to the government’s decision to withdraw all previous subsidy regimes for helping householders install insulation, focusing instead on one unproven programme, the Green Deal, with the result that the number of lofts that get lagged each year are predicted to fall by up to 93 per cent. It’s not that surprising that a recent poll by You-Gov found that just 2 per cent believe the coalition has met Cameron’s “greenest ever” pledge.

Another example of where the government has missed a trick is in the cancellation of the planned introduction of something called Display Energy Certificates (DECs), a measure that would have forced offices and shops to calculate and publicly display the energy they use. The measure was pulled despite blanket industry support for its introduction.

Unlike businesses, the Treasury currently seems not to see how targeted and reasonable regulation – as opposed to form-filling bureaucracy – can actually help drive innovation and growth. For businesses it can set a level playing field which stops ethical firms being undercut by fly-by-night operators.

The Treasury instead seems to see lobbying for any green regulation as a form of self-serving bidding for government support by hard-pressed building firms. While the Treasury is right that regulation can in some circumstances falsely create a market for services to comply with that regulation, thereby adding a cost to end users, this view ignores the fact that this particular bit of regulation, DECs, was also supported by the private sector firms who would have paid for the work: the developers and office owners.

Because for them the business case for making investment in green technology is often marginal because it requires significant up-front investment, even though it pays for itself in reduced energy bills over time. To make it really worthwhile they want their clients – building occupiers – to be able to see how green their buildings are, and be able to compare this transparently against their rivals. Then it starts to have a market value. That’s what DECs could have done. But the opportunity was missed.

It’s just one example. The practical impact of this reluctance from government to intervene where there is market failure is that fewer and fewer businesses are seeing investment in sustainability as the key to future profits, because they are less clear that both the market and the regulatory regime are moving in that direction. One chief executive of a major listed contractor told me in the last six months that he had stopped investing in upskilling his business to carry out green retrofitting, because he didn’t see the demand under the current government.

Thus an industry, construction, which represents a tenth of the UK economy, remains in deep recession, dragging down the output of the nation. But beyond this immediate impact, the real risk of not taking a leadership position on the green economy is that an opportunity is missed to take a lead in a global market that is likely to be one of the key industries of the 21st century. The UK could be the country with the skills the rest of the world turns to in order to combat climate change. But not if the current course continues.

The campaign is being tweeted at #green4growth

Cameron’s pledge to make the Conservatives the environmental party is probably the most discredited of all his pre-election gambits. Photograph: Getty Images

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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