Why have Tory MEPs rejected a free market solution to climate change?

By sabotaging reform of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, Conservative MEPs have shown that they can't be relied upon to champion British interests in Europe.

It may surprise some on the centre left but there is nothing innate to conservatism that makes it less able to take pragmatic decisions in favour of sensible environmental policy. It has had a refreshing ability to acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature and stewardship even if it has become more conflicted about the means to deliver these outcomes. It is a broad church that spans from the one nation Heseltines to the radical free marketeers like John Redwood. But if there is one thing that unites them, it’s the belief that markets offer most of the answers. Which is why it is so baffling that Conservative MEPs voted down a measure that might have kept the European Emissions Trading Scheme alive. Trading is not the only way of tackling emissions but it’s the poster child of free market thinkers because it promises an economically efficient, non-regulatory solution to a giant supranational problem.

The back story is that, on Tuesday, the EU parliament voted against a minor technocratic fix that would have rescued the floundering European carbon market, which is struggling under the weight of too many pollution permits in the system. The fix would have involved 'backloading' the sale of some excess carbon allowances to 2019, so the number of allowances in the system would be reduced, increasing the price which has dropped as low as €3 per tonne of carbon in recent months. While more profound reform is required, it would have been a first step to putting the mechanism back on track. The vote failed by 19 votes. Twenty Conservative MEPs voted against it. In doing so, they failed their constituents and UK business.

A strong carbon price across Europe is directly in the UK’s interest. Its main benefit is to provide financial incentives for switching from coal to gas, with the costs being born by coal heavy countries like Poland and Germany and rewards flowing to those that have already made the switch, like the UK. One of  Thatcher’s less controversial legacies is an energy system which has less and less coal and a relatively high proportion of gas, so UK generators and fuel suppliers stood to gain significantly from the EU carbon market fix. By voting against it, Conservative MEPs have rewarded coal at the expense of gas and Germany at the expense of the UK. This will be the first of many negative consequences arising from the failure of EU emissions trading. At our Chancellor’s insistence, the government has also introduced a carbon price floor, which means we are paying higher carbon prices than our neighbours. It creates an attractive revenue stream for the Treasury but many British businesses will now feel aggrieved that it could now be at least a decade before there is a single carbon price across Europe.

This is part of a pattern of conflicting behaviour from different parts of the Conservative Party that should worry its leaders. There is no evidence that the British public sees climate or environment as a partisan issue. It is a 'valence' issue, like national security, in which voters expect any party of government to be competent.

Emissions trading may be too obscure for the public to notice but experts in business, NGOs and academia do and,  for many, this will be another worrying sign that the Conservatives are struggling to govern coherently on one of the big issues of our age. We’ve already seen this confusion with the Energy Bill, where the Chancellor agreed to spend £7.6bn a year on new low carbon energy (mostly renewables) but then opposed a decarbonisation objective for 2030 which would have ensured that much of the equipment required would have been built in new UK turbine factories.

The debate now moves on to what 2030 climate package the EU should adopt. The UK should be at the heart of the debate, fighting for an ambitious carbon goal that matches our own. But the prime minister has yet to get his ministers to agree a common position. Whether or not the British government takes a lead, the EU will adopt a new climate package at some point in the next 18 months under pressure from France and Germany. Yesterday’s action by Conservative MEPs has made it more likely that it will be focused on fiscal and regulatory measures, and less on trading. That may turn out to be a good thing, but Conservative MEPs have just shot themselves in the foot by making market trading solutions less attractive. They have also made it considerably more difficult for David Cameron to demonstrate that his party has championed British interests in energy and climate change effectively.

Matthew Spencer is director of Green Alliance

Exhaust rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power station at Bergheim near Aachen, Germany. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.