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Why being green is good

The government needs to show how the environment and the economy can go hand in hand.

Being green is nice. It is a Good Thing - it means respecting and looking after our landscapes, keeping our air clean, and protecting life on this planet. But sometimes being nice is a luxury we can't afford. Take the seaside resort of Redcar in the north east. Between 2004 and 2009 unemployment in the area went from 2,000 to 5,000. Investment in the area is low and the industries that once sustained it are shutting down. When someone has been let go from the local steel plant, reliant on their heating from a pre-payment meter in a flat they will never own, the importance of being green is unsurprisingly low on their agenda.

For many of the people of Redcar, it's hard to see how they can be excited about Whitehall-born schemes like the Green Deal. But that is what the government expects of them. Set to launch at the end of this year, Greg Barker declares the Green Deal "the biggest home energy programme of modern times." It is one of the events of the year, he has (perhaps somewhat facetiously) said - "we are looking forward to the diamond jubilee and the Olympics, but it's also the year in which we'll launch the pioneering green deal." The number of street parties for that launch remains to be seen.

Now, the Green Deal is decidedly a Good Thing. It works by taking away the upfront cost of energy efficiency measures and having them paid off gradually from the savings made on fuel bills. The UK has been far beyond the rest of Europe when it comes to energy efficiency and so the Green Deal is meant to help us catch up, but the public won't care about that if it doesn't speak their language.

Last week, Green Alliance published the results of research carried out in conjunction with three MPs, looking at what the government's Green Deal proposal means on the ground, in their local constituencies. They were three distinct areas: Hexham, a large rural constituency with many off-grid properties; Bristol North West, a diverse constituency in the south west consisting of affluent areas, urban spaces, and heavy industry; and Redcar, a small north east constituency suffering from high levels of unemployment, people on low incomes, and vulnerable households in fuel poverty.

The local businesses, housing associations, residents, local authorities and community groups we spoke to all got that the Green Deal was a good idea. They got it could improve the energy efficiency of their buildings and make them savings. They all wished it well. But they couldn't see those in their areas wanting to take it up in big numbers. Ultimately, it just didn't seem relevant enough to the lives and needs of local people.

For the scheme to be a success they felt it needed to deal with real problems people had. Specifically, to make sure the fuel poor get a bigger share of the Energy Company Obligation (ECO - which obliges energy companies to deliver a certain amount of the Green Deal); and to ensure that the efficiency measures aren't just offered by big companies, but local ones as well. It must reach those most in need and provide jobs and opportunities for the local economy. It needs to show that being green isn't just nice, but smart as well.

It's the same with all green policies. They can't be parachuted down from Whitehall, decrees of pleasantness that mean little to people's lives. If the public only hear that their energy bills are going up without being told why, and that policies like the Carbon Price Floor will be a cost to them while exempting the country's biggest polluters, it is hard to persuade them to buy into the whole agenda.

It's hard to show them that being green isn't just about being nice. It's hard to show them how it's about dealing with diminishing resources and figuring out ways to use them differently. How it's about stopping the impact of climate change on the jobs we have, the technology we use and the places we live, all of which will be affected by climate change. It's hard to show them that being green is about improving people's lives, securing our economy and building new opportunities. It's hard to show them that being green is about them, unless the policies show that.

The government needs to show how the environment and the economy can go hand in hand and that, far from a cost, being green can be a huge boon to our economy, both nationally and to each of us individually.

So the Carbon Price Floor should not be a tax that just goes into the Treasury's general pot, but a way of funding benefits for the fuel poor. The renewable energy being generated on our landscapes should help the community it is in by funding insulation to reduce the energy bills of those that live around it. That clean infrastructure should be built by local people and, where possible, owned by those communities as well.

And it's about being clear about the facts. The government needs to show that being green doesn't increase your energy bill, but relying on a global oil and gas price long term does. Being green doesn't threaten jobs, but relying on manufacturing last generation products will.

Why is green good? Because it helps people and it helps the economy. It keeps our economy resilient and sustainable, two vital factors in a successful recovery. Take another policy - the Green Investment Bank, a central plank of the government's green agenda and another Good Idea which is launching later this year. But when it does it must be sold with enthusiasm and show how it will bring investment to places like Redcar.

In the end, we need a strong narrative from government that shows what being green can mean to people's lives, incomes and future prospects. In the end, we need to know that being green works for Redcar not just Whitehall.

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK