GDP figures: Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations

The economy is still 1.3 per cent smaller than before the recession and the recovery remains the slowest since 1870s.

Solid but far from spectacular. That is probably the fairest description of how the economy performed in the final quarter of last year. The ONS's first estimate suggests that GDP rose by 0.7 per cent, below the 0.8 per cent measured in Q3, but enough to ensure that 2013 was the strongest year for growth since 2007, with output rising by 1.9 per cent. 

After fears of a triple-dip recession less than a year ago, the economy has enjoyed an unexpected bounceback. But it's important to remember that this remains the slowest recovery since the 1870s, with GDP still 1.3 per cent below its pre-recession peak (the US, by contrast, is 5.6 per cent above). To this, the Tories will reply that the UK suffered a bigger crash than any other major country, with GDP falling by 7.2 per cent from peak to trough. But as Larry Summers told George Osborne at Davos last week, "The deeper the valley you are in, the more rapidly you are able to grow."

In 2010, a genuine recovery was underway, with the economy growing 2.4 per cent in the 12 months to Q3 2010, but premature austerity, in the form of the VAT rise and the dramatic cut in infrastructure spending, ensured that growth was snuffed out. To meet the OBR's original 2010 forecasts, the economy would need to grow by 1.6 per cent each quarter between now and the election. But Osborne has been the beneficiary of low expectations. Before the post-2010 downturn, below-trend growth of 1.9 per cent would have been viewed as a dismal failure. 

The broader concern remains, as Vince Cable suggested in his lecture last night, that this is the wrong kind of recovery, one too reliant on debt-led consumption and house price inflation, rather than exports and investment. Of the 0.7 per cent rise in output in Q3, 0.6 per cent came from the services sector, with construction actually declining by 0.3 per cent. And, of course, contrary to what the Tories claimed last week, living standards are still falling, with prices (2 per cent) rising more than twice as fast as wages (0.9 per cent). So long as this remains the case, they will still struggle to rebut Labour's charge that this is a recovery for the few, not the many. 

George Osborne speaks on EU reform in London on January 15, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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