Why there'll be no U-turn from Clegg on green taxes

The Deputy PM vowed in his conference speech that the Lib Dems "will keep this government green" - and he meant it.

ConservativeHome thinks the Lib Dems are going to cave in to the Prime Minister after his rash policy-on-the-hoof announcement at PMQs yesterday – and start taking the green costs out of energy bills.

To quote the Tory blogger Mark Wallace, "they [the Lib Dems] know their position as the people preventing energy bills from being cut will not be tenable for long."

I think Mr Wallace is wrong.

Firstly, he forgets that this isn’t 2010 or even 2011. We’ve now crossed the rubicon and the differentiation strategy, so long promised, is in full swing. Hence the reversal on secret courts, clarification on Free Schools, the lists of Tory 'initiatives' we’ve stopped (the 'racist vans' campaign being the latest). That process is going to accelerate and the chance to expose the paucity of thinking from the Tories on energy is too good to miss. When David Cameron encouraged everyone to hug a husky, I had no idea he was actually outlining his whole energy policy.

Secondly, 75% of folk don’t blame green taxes for their energy bills. I suspect the 25% of people who do already vote Tory or have fled to UKIP. This doesn’t seem like much of a Lib Dem vote winner, so the politics don’t work. And thirdly, its a bad idea anyway. Around half the money raised in green energy taxes goes on schemes to help those in fuel poverty to minimise waste. I’d have said that making the poorest in society choose between heating or eating was a rather more "untenable policy position".

But that’s not really why the Lib Dems won’t be rolling over to get the Prime Minister out of a hole. It’s because just 36 days ago, Lib Dem conference was told:

"And if there’s one area where we’ve had to put our foot down more than any other, have a guess. Yep, the environment.

"It’s an endless battle; we’ve had to fight tooth and nail; it was the same just this week with the decision to introduce a small levy to help Britain radically cut down on plastic bags.

"They wanted to scrap Natural England, hold back green energy. They even wanted geography teachers to stop teaching children about how we can tackle climate change. No, no and no – the Liberal Democrats will keep this government green."

Nick Clegg’s words. No U-turning from there.

Mr Cameron, it might be time to pull on an extra hoodie. It’s the only energy policy you’ve got left.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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