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23 November 2020

Ed Davey on the climate crisis: “we have got no time to waste“

The Liberal Democrat leader discusses green recovery, Covid-19, and making the party relevant again

By Alona Ferber

In 2015, when the landmark Paris Agreement climate talks were underway, Ed Davey was no longer serving as energy and climate change secretary in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition cabinet. One of 49 Lib Dem MPs to lose their seat in a brutal general election, Davey was out of parliament for the first time since 1997.

But the now Liberal Democrat leader, who set up as a consultant on energy and climate change in 2016 before being re-elected as an MP the following year, was still “excited about” Paris. So excited, in fact, that he went even though he wasn’t supposed to.

Unable to get accreditation – an attempt to tag along with “a bunch of green journalists” failed when the UN realised he had been a minister, not a hack – he found out where the UK delegation was staying and booked a room at their hotel.

“I’m not sure if Amber Rudd was terribly happy to see me,” he told Spotlight in a recent interview, “but some of the civil servants and I got on like a house on fire and I listened to how negotiations were going in those crucial last 72 hours and it was just wonderful – it surpassed our expectations, Paris.”

Davey is clearly keen to come across as a man who is really “passionate” about the environment and “proud” of his record on it. Even his Zoom backdrop in our interview – an image of wind turbines tinged yellow and orange – is on-brand, though he insists that this just happens to be one of his regular backdrops.

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“Well I am just very proud of what we achieved in government on offshore wind,” he responds without flinching when I point how on-topic it is.

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Davey took the helm of the party at a time of unprecedented global crisis. After 20 years as an MP, having served as a minister and in the cabinet of the coalition government, as deputy leader and as acting leader, he was elected in August to head the party six months after the first national lockdown.

[Read more: Ed Davey used his Lib Dem conference speech to introduce himself – but not to the people you think]

Social distancing and virtual working makes doing politics a challenge. “I’ve done a lot of Zooms,” he laughs. 

But he took the helm at a challenging time for the party, too. In 2015, the public punished the Liberal Democrats at the polls for the party’s role in Tory austerity and the perceived betrayal over student fees. At the 2019 election the party dropped from 21 MPs (nine of whom had defected from Labour and the Conservatives over Brexit and the anti-Semitism debacle) to 11. An internal review described the election, under then leader Jo Swinson, as a “high-speed car crash”, criticising the party’s pledge to revoke Article 50 if elected.

“I said on the day I got elected we need to wake up and smell the coffee. We’ve had three very poor election results in five years, and we need to understand what was going wrong both in terms of the way that voters perceived us and how we were campaigning,” he says.

Davey, an economist by training, is convinced that he can restore the party’s fortunes and put climate policy front and centre of a Lib Dem revival.

The Nottinghamshire-born MP’s commitment to the issue goes back to his gap year, he says, when a friend recommended the book Seeing Green by Jonathon Porritt, as well as the influence of a green-minded relative. What followed was him “voraciously reading” other green texts and joining a student environmental group at Oxford University. Aside from his “very liberal instincts on politics, political reform, economic reform, social reform and personal liberty”, he joined the Liberal Democrats in 1989 partly because of what he saw as the party’s leadership on green issues.

Last year, ahead of December’s election, Davey said the party would “decarbonise capitalism”, pledging £100bn over five years to do so. Since then, they have gone on to up the amount to £150bn.

“The reason we increased that since the election was because of Covid,” Davey says. “We are now facing, unlike pre-December 2019, possibly the worst economic recession for 300 years, I mean it’s dramatic. So if you are going to respond to that and give people hope, give businesses a reason to invest, [then] use it as a moment to fast-track the transition, because [if] you know there’s a climate emergency, then you’ve got to upgrade your plans.”

In June, when Davey was interim leader, the party announced the three-year, £150bn investment, as part of a £350bn coronavirus rescue package. The proposal included a green jobs guarantee and a pledge that 80 per cent of UK energy would come from renewables by 2030. At least half of Bank of England financing would be required to go to green investment programmes, and government “climate bonds” would raise more capital. Tax incentives on investment in green areas for savings and pensions were also mooted.

The calls for green pandemic recovery are now being heard across the spectrum. Labour has urged the government to commit at least £30bn to capital investment in green stimulus over the next year-and-a-half, creating 400,000 jobs.

Last week, Boris Johnson unveiled a £12bn, ten-point climate plan. The government has confirmed that £3bn of this is new spend. Measures include a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030, investment in nuclear power, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage, and a pledge – already made by Boris Johnson at party conference – to quadruple offshore wind power by 2030. The government has estimated this would create 250,000 jobs and boost the Conservatives’ “levelling up” agenda. Earlier this year the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced £3bn to decarbonise public buildings and private homes.

[Read more: Why a new ten-point green plan won’t clean up the Conservatives’ act]

Davey is one of a chorus of voices warning the plan falls short. “I’ll believe it when I see it actually operating. I mean we’ve had five years of waste, massively wasted opportunity and indeed in some areas a massive backwards action,” he says. “They’ve wasted five years, and we have got no time to waste… my fear is that what they are going to do is going to be nowhere near ambitious enough.”

Compared to countries such as France, Germany, and Japan, “they are very slow”, he says, adding that he is concerned the Conservatives see this as “more of a PR thing. They see it as a clever political strategy, where some of us actually believe it is really important, in and of itself.”

Davey has few kind words for the Conservative record on this issue. He slams them for scrapping – “with no consultation”– the zero-carbon homes standard, set out by the last Labour government, after the 2015 election. “There’s probably a million homes now being built which are going to have to be retrofitted, he says.

But the list goes on. He slams them for cancelling the £1bn carbon capture and storage (CCS) pilot, news of which broke just days before the Paris climate talks – again “no consultation” (the UK’s Climate Change Committee and the IPCC have said that CCS has a key role in achieving net zero), for having “damaged the solar industry” and “having damaged community energy”. And on Boris Johnson himself? – “I mean, where do I start?”

Yet his criticism is not reserved for what the Tories did after he sat round the cabinet table with them. On offshore wind power, a focus of his time as energy secretary, he and Chris Huhne, his predecessor in the role, “went at it… all guns blazing in the teeth of opposition,” he says, “not from all the Tories let me be fair, there were some Conservatives who bought into it, people like Oliver Letwin, for example, but some of the others, they were so, so hostile.”

Ed Davey (third from right) at a meeting of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat cabinet in 2015. Credit: Dan Kitwood – WPA Pool via Getty Images.

As secretary, Davey also liberalised energy markets, increasing competition among gas and electricity suppliers. And he saw a role for competition in increasing the share of renewablesprops in the sector. In 2014, he told Prospect, “It’s got to be a low-carbon mix and ultimately I don’t want the government – the secretary of state – to decide what that low-carbon mix is… I want the markets and technology development and innovation to decide what that mix is.”

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, Britain being on track to miss the Independent Committee on Climate Change’s interim 2030 goal, and the push for public investment in coronavirus recovery and green stimulus, does he still think this is something to leave to the market?

“What I used to say as secretary of state” was about “partnership”, he says. “It wasn’t just ‘leave it to the market’, it was absolutely a ‘never leave it to the market’; it was very, very strong state-shaping.” Davey is at pains to make clear his economic philosophy is neither statist nor a “red in tooth and claw neoliberal capitalism – which is absolutely not me.” His is a “liberal state-enabling type model.”

“What we achieved to get this stuff built”, he says, pointing not for the first or last time to his Zoom backdrop, “was very much that, it was very state directed with new legislation, new auctions, new forms of subsidy, but bringing the power of the market to innovate and compete.”

He points out that, when he was secretary, he was told that the price of a megawatt hour for wind turbines was going to be £160, and that it would take a decade to get it below £100. “But through the auctions we brought in, the price has tumbled even faster than I thought. And the Tories were telling me: ‘It’s hopeless, this will never work’, and now they are having to admit that these things are the cheapest things going – large-scale, low-carbon electricity.” At the last government auction in 2019, the price had dropped to £39.65 per megawatt hour, almost a third lower than the previous auction in 2017.

[Read more: Why cross-party progressives must unite to build back better]

And partnership also means working with the oil and gas sector, giving them the “confidence” to take the leap to net zero. “They probably see it more urgently for themselves than they might have done a few years ago, he says, “because I think oil and gas executives across the world are beginning to realise that… the game might be up in a few years’ time”.

Davey’s approach in office was praised by some and criticised by others. His approval of the Hinkley Point C power station was controversial, and there was backlash when, in 2013, he said that fracking is “not the evil thing that some people try to make it out to be”.

Now he does not see the same place for fracking and nuclear in the no-carbon energy mix. “Time and evidence have moved on. It’s always difficult for people to see things in their historical context. It’s not just the fact that we were in coalition with the Tories who wanted to frack everywhere”.

And of course his criticism is not reserved for Conservative climate policy. On coronavirus, the government has been “really incompetent on almost every level”. A carer throughout his life – first for his mother, who died of cancer when he was a child, for his grandmother, and now for his disabled son – he thinks the government has “showed complete lack of understanding of the linkage between the NHS and care”. The “care homes error” was “almost criminally negligent”.

On Brexit, the committed Remainer describes the ongoing negotiations over a Brexit trade deal as “frankly chaotic and incompetent”. In November, he wrote to Boris Johnson urging him to negotiate a three to six-month adjustment period for businesses as part of a deal with the EU.

An early supporter, along with Keir Starmer, of a circuit-breaker second lockdown, he thinks he has a key role to play in holding the government to account. But despite his belief that he can “transform” the party into a “powerful, distinctive, principled voice”, Davey is “not going to suddenly make lurid predictions about how we are going to come to power, except, I’ll tell you this, we will be in power in local government, we are in power in local government”. It is locally, in communities, that he thinks he can rebuild the party.

His sense of optimism has been boosted by the outcome of the US election: “The best thing that’s happened to the climate is Joe Biden getting elected.”

But his rose-tinted glasses of hindsight do change the hue on the Liberal Democrats’ time in coalition, casting them in the role of moderator of Tory voraciousness – from budget cuts to a cavalier attitude on the environment. What, if anything does he regret about his period in coalition?

“I regret that people didn’t realise we had 306 people trying to stop us every day. There were 306 Tory MPs trying to stop us, and we had to take them on. And I think despite the fact there were 306 of them and 57 of us, we won a lot more battles than we lost. I’d have liked to have won a lot more.” 

This article is from an upcoming Spotlight supplement. To view our most recent editions, click here