The UK's Credibility on Tackling Climate Change Is Taking a Nose-Dive

09/08/2015 19:19 BST | Updated 09/08/2016 10:59 BST


To mark 100 days of the first Conservative government in nearly 20 years, HuffPost UK is running 100 Days of Dave, a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to first-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face.

Many years ago, George Osborne pledged that under his Chancellorship the Treasury would "become a green ally, not a foe," and round about the same time husky-hugging David Cameron famously declared his ambition for the coalition to be "the greenest government ever."

In spring this year an opinion poll revealed that a full two percent of the population thought he had succeeded. But viewed from the perspective of this new Conservative government, the coalition, whilst not exactly green, is certainly starting to take on a slightly rosy tint.

The new government has made a calamitous start. The irrational and horrendously expensive decision to block onshore wind was matched by the application of the climate change levy to renewable energy (which as Friends of the Earth described it, is like making apple juice pay an alcohol tax).

These destructive decisions could be defended by arguing that the onshore wind block had been in their manifesto (although that makes the manifesto stupid and illogical - and contradictory). It might also be argued that the extra tax from applying the climate change levy to renewables is necessary for a state struggling with its finances (although this would also appear to be retrospective legislation which UK government has traditionally argued against because of the impact on the investment climate). Political excuses don't make them rational decisions, but politics isn't always a rational business.

However, there are two less high-profile decisions which reveal how ideological and incoherent this government really is. And they indicate that the UK's credibility in international climate talks might be about to take a nose-dive.

The first was in the budget, where the Chancellor unexpectedly changed the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) from a graduated tax based on CO2 emissions towards a flat tax after the first year. The money from VED will all go to a new "Roads Fund".

There are several problems with this. First, is that there is now very little tax incentive to buy low-CO2 vehicles, including hybrid and plug-in hybrids that are a good option for people who don't feel able to use purely electric vehicles. Secondly, it is ring-fencing or 'hypothecating' money for road building. Not hypothecating tax has been described as the "Treasury's sacred rule" but has been ignored in this case despite demand for roads being consistently overestimated by government since the 1980s. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is that manufacturers of a productive UK export industry were not consulted, and actually thought the changes would damage the low-carbon vehicle sector that the UK is a global leader in, saying that it threatened "the ability of the UK and the UK automotive sector to meet ever stricter CO2 targets."

The second decision is the one to abandon zero-carbon homes as part of the government's 'Productivity Plan'. There are some similarities with the VED decision. Contrary to Cameron's promise to think long-term, it is short-termism of the worst kind, locking in emissions from future housing that will be hugely expensive to fix. The additional costs of building zero-carbon homes will be around £3,500 (and could be effectively zero) whilst the energy bill savings of implementing them would be around £250 per year according to the Renewable Energy Association.

Retrofitting to a very low carbon standard after a house is built would be very expensive, in the tens of thousands of pounds. As with the VED changes, plenty in industry were unhappy. It is perhaps unsurprising that Greenpeace and the Green Building Council attacked it. But building developers like Lendlease Europe were 'extremely disappointed' and the British Property Federation called it 'short-sighted', saying it undermined the certainty needed for investment.

The common theme was that both decisions were backward steps on climate, both shifted signalling on long-term investment away from low carbon, and so both potentially lock in carbon emissions in the long term. And both were completely unforced errors.

In neither case was there compelling economic or political pressure to make changes in the way the government did. It was not a situation where the greens were on one side and major industry lined up on the other. If changes were required they could have been made in a much less damaging way. In other words this government had a free choice - it could have easily done the right thing, but it didn't.

When governments have real choice it reveals their true values. In both of these cases they made decisions based on an ideology that isn't really bothered about climate change or resource efficiency.

And whenever David Cameron talks about the importance of climate action over the next few months, remember this is the guy who oversaw a government unnecessarily roll back much-needed policy. In politics, credibility is a difficult resource to reclaim once it's lost, as Cameron has learnt in Brussels. He may be about to learn that lesson again in Paris.

Dr Doug Parr is Greenpeace UK's chief scientist and policy director

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