One of the criticisms that politicians hear from voters is the accusation that we – the main political parties – are all the same.
We heard it in the referendum debate, and we hear it all the time from parties like Ukip. And it has been aggravated by the inevitable challenges and compromises of coalition government.
Polls indicate that the Liberal Democrats are paying a high price for coalition, even though we entered that coalition in the national interest, to provide the stable government essential for economic recovery.
But we never became Conservatives and they certainly didn’t turn into Liberals. We disagree profoundly on many issues, and Lib Dems have prevented some of the worst Tory excesses from reaching the statute book.
We know we need to present a distinct vision to the electorate. But more than that, we need to prove that we have not abandoned the values that make us Liberal Democrats.
A commitment to the environment has been central to those values for many years.
Five green ways
People still want progress on the environment. Membership of environmental groups outweighs that of all political parties many times over. A majority of the electorate is concerned about climate change; 80 per cent want progress on renewable energy; whether it is the plight of the bees or the future of fracking, our impact on the natural world is a central concern.
Business too wants change. The CBI has repeatedly urged support for the green economy. 340 global investors managing £15tn of assets – including BlackRock, Axa, L&G and Aviva – recently called for an ambitious global climate deal, a stable, reliable carbon price and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies
Yet George Osborne appears determined to ignore the fact that since the financial crash, the low-carbon sector has been among the fastest growing, already accounting for almost 10 per cent of GDP. In 2014-15 it is expected to roughly halve the UK’s trade deficit.
Internationally, China, India, Brazil and many other fast-developing countries are increasingly committed to constraining greenhouse gas emissions and investing in renewable energy. More than half of worldwide investment in electricity goes into low-carbon technologies. Investors are withdrawing support from coal and other fossil fuels.
And the recent New Climate Economy report shows that the idea that environmental progress is inimical to economic growth is hopelessly outdated.
So who will provide leadership? The Conservatives used to talk the talk, and David Cameron still claims to have led the “greenest ever government”. But Conservative policies hardening in fear of Ukip will not enable Britain to meet national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Tories would stop supporting onshore wind power – one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy – and slap further restrictions on solar farms. They are the cheerleaders for fracking, which will inevitably displace renewables over time and permanently remove millions of litres of water from local water systems. And they have no policy to end coal use – they just don’t believe it will happen. And they did appoint Owen Paterson.
Labour, meanwhile, has simply exploited concerns over energy bills by announcing a price freeze. It may work as soundbite politics but it fails as a policy to encourage investment in warm homes and low-carbon energy.
By contrast, the Liberal Democrats have already announced a coherent set of five laws and other measures that we would enact if elected.
A Zero Carbon Britain Bill would introduce a decarbonisation target for electricity generation, expand the powers of the Green Investment Bank and ban electricity generated from unabated coal by 2025.
We will introduce a Heating and Energy Efficiency Bill, including a national programme to raise energy efficiency standards for all Britain’s households and so keep the elderly and vulnerable warm in winter.
On shale gas, we believe that exploration must be strictly regulated, and communities given more of a say.
A Green Transport Bill would establish a network of charging points for electric cars. Only low emission vehicles would be permitted from 2040, and planning laws would be reformed to ensure that developments are designed around walking, cycling and public transport.
These and other proposals, such as plans for a zero-waste Britain and legal targets to protect nature and biodiversity, are concrete measures that, unlike the other political parties, the Liberal Democrats have already announced will be in our General Election manifesto.
Raising the stakes
So we’re well placed to provide really distinctive leadership on green issues. But we can and should go further.
The New Climate Economy report makes clear that the world needs to wean itself off coal-burning as soon as possible. Must we wait until 2025?
By investing in measures to manage electricity demand, as DECC is already doing under Ed Davey’s leadership, by encouraging more interconnector cables with the rest of Europe and supporting energy storage, we might be able to end coal use by 2020. In the light of New Climate Economy, we should look again at whether it is possible.
And if we put an end to coal here in the UK, we should also demand it of our European partners. The Prime Minister’s staff are currently doing a horse-trading deal that could allow Poland, for example, to continue coal use for decades. That is the sort of horse that we would never trade.
We must ensure too that climate change returns to the debate over airport capacity. As the Davies Commission has noted, allowing air travel to increase without constraint will prevent us from tackling climate change.
In the long run, it will be in Britain’s interests to rebuild the economy and society on a truly sustainable basis. That means putting nature at the centre of our thinking, investing in low-carbon technologies to prevent the worst impact of climate change at home and overseas, and recognising that a modern, successful and competitive economy is a green economy.
David Cameron and Ed Miliband have both claimed to have a green vision for Britain’s future, but both of them actually presented mirages. Neither has the solid raft of policies or the commitment needed to deliver.
The LibDems do; and that is both good policy and good politics. We should build on that, and expand our offer for this generation and the next.
Martin Horwood is MP for Cheltenham and a member of the Advisory Board of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit