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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.