Dog whistle politics. Photo: Channel 4 News screengrab
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Without the Lib Dems, there would be nothing to stop the Tories neglecting the environment

Green blues.

It's hard to imagine now, but it's not that long ago that David Cameron was still bandying about the slogan: "vote blue, go green." He once championed himself as a Tory moderniser on the environment. But we've come a long way since the days of trips to the Arctic and hugging huskies. Cameron now openly talks about "getting rid of green crap," while Tory minister Michael Fallon has said the Tories would stop the construction of onshore wind farms if they win in 2015. As we near the general election, the Conservatives are rapidly abandoning any pretence that they care about the green agenda.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the European Parliament, where the Tories are completely unrestricted by the constraints of coalition government. Time and again Conservative MEPs have shown their true colours when it comes to EU environmental measures, and they are definitely not green. They voted down EU measures to restrict the destructive practice of deep-sea fishing. They've opposed efforts to reduce plastic bag use and tackle the scourge of plastic waste in our oceans. And they've repeatedly voted against efforts to strengthen the EU's carbon emissions trading scheme, Europe's landmark policy for fighting climate change.

Yesterday, the Tories showed their true colours yet again when MEPs voted on EU proposals to tackle air pollution, which the new European Commission is threatening to withdraw or water down in its drive to cut red tape. This is being rightly opposed by many MEPs, including Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder who's leading the charge to keep these proposals on the table. We all want to see moves to make EU regulation smarter and more efficient, but that shouldn't come at the expense of the air we breathe. Air pollution now causes an estimated 29,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, almost as many as smoking. And with 40% of the most deadly pollutants coming from elsewhere in the EU, it's clear that we need urgent action on this across Europe.

Yet Conservative MEPs refused to stand up for these vital measures to improve air quality, voting against key amendments to prevent them being delayed and calling for them to be watered down to "reduce administrative burdens." It seems that for the Tories, laws that protect the environment and improve people's quality of life are just more red tape to be slashed. They fail to see that moving towards a cleaner, greener economy isn't just the right thing to do for the planet. It's the best to way to secure future growth and jobs.

The Conservatives' approach to the environment in Europe shows what sort of approach they would take if they are allowed to govern alone. In coalition, Liberal Democrats have fought to make sure that the environment has stayed at the top of the agenda. We've doubled the amount of energy generated from offshore wind and stopped the Tories from slashing support for renewable energy. And while senior Conservative politicians voice their doubts about man-made climate change, Energy Secretary Ed Davey has been busy paving the way for a global deal to cut carbon emissions. Without the Lib Dems, there would be nothing to stop the Tories from lurching to the right on the environment. The truth is, the only way to make blue go green is by adding yellow.

Tim Farron is Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.