It was always questionable that a government which cut fuel duty, hit the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the biggest cut in Whitehall, and turned a carbon-cutting incentive into a stealth tax could justifiably continue to claim it was the “greenest ever”.
But let’s just remember for a moment that the good intentions were there. When David Cameron came to power, pledged to make this “the greenest government ever”, he said that he “cared passionately” about this agenda, and appeared to genuinely believe that there were possibilities in boosting environmental initatives:
We’ve got a real opportunity to drive the green economy to have green jobs, green jobs and make sure we have our share of the industries of the future.
Predictably, this has not been borne out. As soon became clear, the Green Investment Bank, oft-cited by ministers stressing their green credentials, will not be able to borrow for years, while George Osborne’s Budget earlier this year cut fuel duty, and the government slashed subsidies for solar power.
Last week’s Autumn Statement offered no improvement, with Osborne almost directly contradicting Cameron’s earlier statement:
We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers. All we will be doing is exporting valuable jobs out of Britain.
In addition to this support for heavy industry, he spoke of the “ridiculous cost” that EU intiatives on the environment were imposing on firms, and emphasised the burden that green policies were placing on the economy. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Environment Secretary, is said to be furious, having not been consulted.
It seems that this marks the end of the “greenest government ever” fallacy — and a wide-range of environmental groups and activists have written to the Observer to mark their disapproval. One letter, from the heads of Greenpeace and the RSPB (among others) says:
Following the chancellor’s autumn statement, we can say that the coalition is on a path to becoming the most environmentally destructive government to hold power in this country since the modern environmental movement was born.
At the heart of the problem is not just austerity, but the perception in government that pursuing green policies is an inconvenient burden on the economy rather than a necessity and an opportunity. Cameron’s comments at the start of his premiership indicated that he understood the possibilities for jobs and growth afforded by a re-engineering of how the UK generates and uses its energy. The government’s own National Ecosystem Assessment reiterated this.
Climate change talks in Durban are ongoing. But if the coalition continues to treat green issues as a hindrance to growth, not a boost, there is no doubt that the UK will fall behind.