Osborne's anti-green agenda is strangling growth

The government's refusal to commit to a decarbonisation target is preventing the creation of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

With growth in the British economy so anaemic, you would have thought George Osborne would welcome it wherever it could be found.  Particularly in the manufacturing sector, whose weak performance in recent years has kept the UK stuck in trade deficit. Yet this week the Chancellor stands accused of actively preventing the creation of tens of thousands of British manufacturing jobs. 

The charge is levelled in an extraordinary letter sent to Osborne (along with Business Secretary Vince Cable and Energy Secretary Ed Davey) by six of the world’s largest energy manufacturers. These companies – Alstom, Mitsubishi, Doosan, Areva, Vestas and Gamesa – between them already employ over 12,000 people in the UK. For the past few years they have all been developing investment plans, collectively worth hundreds of millions of pounds, to build factories in Britain to supply the country with low carbon energy equipment, in fields such as offshore wind, nuclear power, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage. But in their open letter they warn that these investments, and the jobs they will create, will not go ahead if the government does not commit to a long-term low carbon electricity target in its Energy Bill now passing through Parliament. And it is no secret that it is Osborne who is blocking that commitment. 

Energy policy can be an arcane affair, but this issue is pretty straightforward. Since Labour’s pioneering Climate Change Act in 2008, UK energy policy has been on a long-term trajectory to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by shifting supply towards renewables (particularly wind), along with some nuclear, and gas fired power stations fitted ultimately with carbon capture and storage.  As a result, global manufacturers in these fields have been looking to build factories in Britain to supply the required equipment – with at least six companies developing sites on the east coast to manufacture offshore wind turbines alone. But over the last six months uncertainty has suddenly crept in, putting these investments at risk. And the reason is Osborne.

At present the UK only has an energy policy out to 2020. But investors need a longer timeframe than that – anything they plan now will barely be in operation by then. So the policy they are calling for is a legal limit to the emissions which the electricity sector will be allowed by 2030. This will give certainty to energy companies and their suppliers about the technologies to be installed. There is remarkable unanimity around the need for such a ‘decarbonisation target’ – last month 35 companies, NGOs and other organisations signed a joint statement in support.  It is well known that Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Energy Minister, wanted such a target in the Energy Bill, but Osborne objected. Hence the very pointed addressing of the letter from the six global manufacturers this week to the Chancellor as well as to Davey.

The wider context here is rather remarkable. The British economy now produces far more jobs in green industries than it does in brown or dirty ones. Last year the CBI produced a report, The Colour of Growth, estimating that over a third of the UK’s economic growth in 2011-12 came from green business. Now worth £122bn annually to the UK economy, the environmental sector has been growing (despite the recession) at over 2 per cent a year for the last five years. It employs just under a million people and is taking an increasing share of a rapidly growing global market, so also reducing Britain’s trade deficit.  These facts have in turn made CBI into a rather remarkable cheerleader for stronger environmental policies. 

So why is Osborne setting himself against one of the few job-creating sectors of the otherwise flatlinng British economy? (He has also interfered to obstruct new regulations enduring that new homes are low-carbon.) The answer appears to be entirely political.  Fired up by rural opposition to onshore windfarms and a more general anxiety about rising energy bills, and backed by an increasingly strident campaign in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, a revolt against low carbon policy has developed among a number of backbench Tories, and it’s their support that Osborne is now after. 

His alternative energy policy is the so-called ‘dash for gas’. In the US the exploitation of cheap shale gas has revolutionised energy supply, displacing coal, and this has led to hopes that the same might happen in the UK.  But there is no evidence that we have anything like the reserves found in the US, and being part of a competitive European market there is no guarantee that they would be cheap. On the contrary, a report by the IPPR last week showed that relying on volatile gas markets would cost the economy more than the decarbonisation target if gas prices rise in line with market expectations – and much more if gas prices are higher.  It is high wholesale gas prices which have been responsible for almost the entire rise in energy bills over recent years, not green policy.

But Osborne is now under pressure.  For the Tory chairman of the environment select committee, Tim Yeo, has tabled an amendment to the Energy Bill inserting a 2030 decarbonisation target. Labour have committed to supporting it. Now six Liberal Democrats, defying agreed Coalition policy, have done the same, with the party’s president, Tim Farron, indicating that he too will vote for it.  It will take only a few more Lib Dems to break ranks in support of their own party policy and the government will be facing defeat.  

This may come down to the increasingly abrasive relationship between Nick Clegg and David Cameron.  Buoyed by the Eastleigh by-election, the newly assertive Lib Dem leader faces intense pressure from his own party to tell Cameron that he must finally make good on his tattered promise to lead "the greenest government ever". But in doing so the Prime Minister knows that he would have to defeat his own Chancellor. 

George Osborne wears a high visibility jacket as he makes a visit to the Prysmian Group factory in the constituency of Eastleigh. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Jacobs is visiting professor in the Department of Political Science / School of Public Policy at UCL and at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. He is co-editor of the Political Quarterly

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.