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21 March 2022

Cutting the “green crap” is hurting us all

Environmental measures are all the more important in a cost-of-living crisis.

By Philippa Nuttall

The government is expected this week to publish its delayed energy security strategy. The document will underline the UK’s commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and push onshore and offshore wind power. It will also pay significant attention to fossil fuels, however, with a focus on new sources of oil and gas. And calls for a nationwide campaign to insulate homes or help households swap gas boilers for more efficient electric heat pumps seem to have fallen on deaf ears. At times when living costs are under pressure there is a push to “cut the green crap”, as David Cameron supposedly ordered aides in 2013 — environmental measures are considered an unnecessary expense.

“Vote blue, go green,” Cameron urged when campaigning. Michael Gove sold the vision of “a green Brexit”. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, waxed lyrical about a “green industrial revolution powered by the wind turbines of Scotland and the North East, propelled by electric vehicles made in the Midlands and advanced by the latest technologies developed in Wales”. Yet, when push comes to shove, many Tory ministers seem unable to understand that the triumvirate of issues defining our times — climate change, energy security and the cost-of-living crisis — are linked and can only be resolved together. Cutting the green crap makes everything worse.

Cameron went into government with the Liberal Democrats. Any primary school child can tell you that blue and yellow make green, but the coalition government nevertheless failed to nurture its “green revolution”. The jury is still out on whether leaving the EU will make the UK greener but there is little sign of it happening, except on paper. And for all Johnson’s ambitious talk, his government is failing to show full commitment to a clean energy transition.   

Cameron’s logic in 2013 was to reduce “green levies” used, for example, to help people insulate their homes in an effort to bring down energy bills. The move led to a 90 per cent drop in insulation installation rates. The poorest are suffering most from today’s soaring energy bills. Had they been helped to insulate their homes they would be warmer, their bills would be lower and they would have more money for food and other basics. 

The International Energy Agency — hardly a bastion of radical political thinking — has also suggested ten actions the world can take to break its oil addiction. These include governments lowering speed limits, making public transport cheaper, introducing car-free Sundays in cities and encouraging car sharing. Yet the UK is unlikely to introduce any such policies. 

Far from cutting more green crap, Westminster needs to start actively introducing environmental policies to reduce reliance on oil and gas for the sake of geopolitics, climate change and people. Those with the lowest incomes not only live in homes which leak the most energy, they also rely most on public transport and are most affected by rising prices. Bringing in oil from Saudi Arabia or cutting fuel tax may offer some short-term respite, but massively subsidising insulation and public transport, and investing in cycle lanes and footpaths, would be much more beneficial. 

The same is true of the food industry, where prices for farmers and consumers are also rocketing. Without active government support for Gove’s vision of more local, sustainable models of food production, the only winners will be the big companies who can fix prices, farming methods and places of production — at the expense of us all. 

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