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Whatever happened to the Tories’ green agenda?

By Peter Hoskin
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Silent Running

Back, back before the last election, David Cameron seemed rather like Bruce Dern’s Lowell in Silent Running (1972) – he’d kill for those trees. You could put him in a spaceship, with only some flora and a pair of huskies for company, and he’d hightail it to Saturn and beyond in the name of the environment. “They’re not replaceable!”

But what’s happened to Cameron’s environmentalism now? It’s a good time to ask, what with the Energy Bill, and its various climate change-related provisions, winding its way through Parliament at the moment. And there’s another reason to ask, too: with the next general election approaching, the Tory leadership is going to have to make some decisions about its commitment to greenery. Will that commitment run strong through the manifesto, as it did at the last election? Or will it crumple like an autumn leaf?

When it comes to these things, the first place to look is probably the Government’s own self-assessment report, aka the Mid-Term Review. Among the achievements it counts that – whether you approve of them or no’ – might be considered environmentally-minded are: the establishment of a Green Investment Bank; a doubling in renewable energy generation; a billion quid for carbon capture and storage; and plenty more. Which is to say, it slathers on the green paint thick and vibrant.

But scratch at it with your fingernail, and some of the paint comes away quite easily. Not only does the Mid-Term Review provide the glossiest interpretation of what has been achieved – the Energy Bill is listed top, even though it’s a compromise job that fails to fully satisfy Tories and Lib Dems alike – but also many of its policies-for-the-future can be filed in folders marked:

  • Not entirely environmentally-friendly: “We will encourage the exploitation of shale gas.”
  • Vague to the point of meaninglessness: “We will promote the electrification of the car fleet.”
  • Yeah, good luck with that: “We will seek to bring forward the first nuclear power stations in the world without public subsidy.”

Although this mixed record can’t just be attributed to one man, we really ought to mention George “Jeffrey” Osborne here. We all know by now that the Chancellor’s strategic compulsions have left the Tories and Lib Dems at odds with each other over green policy. Wary of measures that amount to trickle-down taxes for normal folk, he has fought Ed Davey’s instinct to decarbonise at the double. He has been an ardent advocate of tapping into shale gas reserves. And it is his prevailing influence that has seen hard-headed Tories such as Owen Paterson and John Hayes handed jobs in the environmental trade.   

This isn’t to attack Osborne, oh no. Writing as someone who is limply concerned about climate change and all that – not least because I don’t have the scientific knowledge to think otherwise – I reckon there’s much to admire about the Chancellor’s stance. For too long, as I’ve written before, politicians have regarded green policy as something that begins over plates of sushi in Kyoto and ends with sweeping changes to the tax system. The possibility of energy bills rising by 30 per cent over the next seven years, as a result of green policies, should give any policymaker pause for thought.

But the Tory leadership’s waning commitment to their erstwhile green agenda is still troublesome in many ways. It’s not just that we hear less about Big Brownite Schemes to save the world, but we also hear less about what Greg Clark called, before the last election, “a richer model than one based narrowly on government action”. David Cameron, who might once have evangelised about small-scale schemes to keep our country fresh ‘n’ fertile, hasn’t even given a speech on energy and the environment since becoming Prime Minister. When it comes to green policy now, he’s not so much Silent Running as just plain silent.

This overlaps with something else that I’ve mentioned before: Cameron’s baffling inconsistency in the face of voters and in the face of his own party. Not every Tory MP may be keen on green, but they’ll be even less keen on a leader who doesn’t have faith in his own convictions, if that is actually what they are. This is the man who changed the party logo to a tree and who made environmentalism the first stage in his modernising plan for power. If he doesn’t stand for those things now, then what does he stand for?

And it also neglects the fact that conservation is a very conservative end that can be delivered by very conservative means. Not only are there those smaller, Burkean solutions that Greg Clark was referring to – schemes such as Recycle Bank – but there’s also the electric potential of science, technology and entrepreneurship. Some of the stuff that’s being developed is beyond the speculation of the most utopian science fiction writers, such as the flying wind farms that Google has just invested in. And while the Green Investment Bank may be a welcome attempt to encourage such innovation, it is barely mentioned nowadays. That helps others sweep in with demands for more big, statist solutions.

Of course, environmentalism may only win votes at the margins – but that doesn’t mean the Conservatives should just let Labour, the Lib Dems, whoever, range freely across this territory at the next election. Nurturing a “clean and healthy environment to pass on to our children,” as the last Tory manifesto put it, is a noble endeavour, and one that shouldn’t just be associated with the left. Besides, it was part of Cameron’s original promise – and the sun doesn’t smile on politicians who fail to keep their promises.

*Although, it should be said, Paterson made an excellent environmental – and conservative – case for GM crops yesterday.


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