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100 Days of Dave - Whatever Happened to the Husky?

12/08/2015 18:01 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 10:59 BST

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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.

On his recent trip to Asia, David Cameron declared the first majority Conservative government in 20 years was wasting no time in delivering its agenda, adding everyone in his government knows "if they're not sure which approach to take, it's all in the good book, the manifesto".

It was the kind of throw away comment victorious prime ministers make, but it still must have left ministers working on the crucial topics of energy, the environment, and climate change mightily confused. Ministers at DECC and Defra consulting the 'good book' would find little to help them beyond promises to 'halt' onshore wind farms, go all out for shale gas, implement some marine protection zones, and keep delivering on the UK's legally binding carbon targets in a cost effective manner. Even Tory sources have privately acknowledged the manifesto offers less of a coherent programme for building a modern low carbon economy, and more a vague placeholder for Ministers, stitched together with red meat for your stereotypical wind turbine-loathing, fox-hunting rural Tory voter.

The result of a manifesto with environmental policy holes big enough to sail an oil tanker through has been an all-out assault on green policies. Wind farm subsidies have been halted, solar farm subsidies look to be going the same way, other renewable energy subsidies are under review and the popular feed-in tariff scheme is to be made harder to access, the award of crucial clean energy contracts has been delayed, rail electrification plans were shelved, zero carbon home standards have been axed, the Green Deal energy efficiency scheme has been scuppered, taxes on renewable energy have been hiked, the planning decisions for fracking projects will be fast-tracked, and the Green Investment Bank is being prepared for privatisation. Cameron is right about one thing, his government certainly hasn't let the grass grow.

Green businesses and campaigners are understandably outraged. One senior business executive voiced fears the Prime Minister is taking the UK back to the dark ages on green issues, while another seasoned campaigner reckons "the past few months mark the worst period for environmental policy that I have seen in my 30 years' work in this field".

It may not be quite that bad. Tory sources are justified when they suggest any incoming government would have moved to curb renewable energy subsidies as technology costs come down and pressure on the Treasury's agreed clean energy budget mounts. Similarly, energy efficiency policy in the UK has been a mess for years and a re-think is long overdue.

But any merits found in the government's bonfire of the greenery are more than offset by the manner in which controversial changes have been managed. The self-evident contradictions contained in the government's pledge to embrace cost effective decarbonisation at the same time as deliberately slowing the roll out of onshore wind and solar farms that deliver power at a lower cost than more favoured offshore wind and nuclear power fuels the impression any pretence at a technology-neutral, evidence-based approach has been ditched. The decision to axe key energy efficiency policies without lining up a replacement has left a black hole where the most important component of any decarbonisation strategy should be. The willingness to rush through a host of reforms that were absent the manifesto, several of which undermine returns from existing clean energy projects, dealt a major blow to investor confidence. Moreover, the shock and awe flurry of announcements has established a narrative, rightly or wrongly, that the government is on an anti-green crusade.

The impact on the UK's green business community - for so long one of the few genuine success stories in a bleak economic landscape - has been considerable. Investors will inevitably respond to shock policy moves by putting up the price of capital, uncertainty reigns over the government's flagship clean energy and energy efficiency programmes, legal action against a number of the government's decisions is being seriously considered. All the while, Germany, the US and China continue to step up clean tech investment, toxic air brings about tens of thousands of deaths a year, and climate change looms both as diplomatic challenge at this year's Paris Summit and an existential threat for the global economy. Investment is being undermined, one of the most exciting parts of the economy is being compromised, and the UK's efforts to tackle climate change are left looking slimmer than one of George Osborne's new suits.

The demolition of much of the previous government's green policy landscape has been done with Cameron's say so, but without any sort of public comment from the prime minister. Unless I have missed something, during his first 100 days, Cameron has made one comment on an environmental issue and that was to send his condolences to the family of Cecil the lion, condemning hunting for sport at the same time as trying to finagle a relaxation of the fox hunting ban through the commons. On the finer points of energy and climate policy, our press conference averse premier remains as enigmatic as ever.

All of which has left anyone with an interest in the environment asking, whatever happened to Dave's husky? Is it dead, dying, or just resting?

The ever vocal climate sceptics in Conservative ranks think the Cameron is on the run, lacks the stomach for a fight to defend his green legacy, and besides will soon be replaced by a chancellor who has cultivated a reputation for cosying up to pollutocrats. Labour, in brief breaks from its own existential crisis, is keen to put its spin on this narrative, arguing Conservative environmental policy has become an ideologically motivated exercise in trashing renewables and belittling climate risks.

However, there is a counter-argument. Whitehall sources insist the Conservative leadership was seriously burned by the 2014 row over energy bills and as such makes no apologies about prioritising steps to bring the cost of green levies under much tighter control. But at the same time Cameron and his energy and climate change secretary Amber Rudd are said to be as committed as ever to tackling climate change. Consequently, work is underway on a new strategy that will continue to prioritise decarbonisation efforts, albeit with greater focus on competition between different technologies.

The promise of a new strategy holds out some hope for green businesses and investors, currently reeling from the government's failure to transition to this new strategy in a phased manner backed by the democratic mandate offered by clear manifesto commitments. But it also presents a challenge for Cameron. This parliament was always going to be the point at which decarbonisation efforts started to gather pace and the impacts, both in terms of long term benefits and short term costs, became more obvious. Developing a strategy that appeals to the public, keeps Tory backbenchers onside, and mobilises much needed investment in green infrastructure will require considerable political muscle and policy innovation. To date, Cameron has shown little inclination to back up his warm words on climate change with any serious political capital. That will have to change if he is to ensure the UK builds on, rather than squanders, its position as a clean tech hub.

The first 100 days of the Cameron government have been as bleak as the air around a coal-fired power plant for green businesses and environmental causes. If the prime minister wishes to repair a reputation he once valued as an environmentally conscious moderniser and ensure he has a credible platform to speak from at this December's Paris Climate Summit he needs to use the next 100 days to prove the husky is alive and well. He should start by delivering the credible, cost effective, coherent decarbonisation strategy that should have taken pride of place in his 'good book' in the first place.

James Murray is editor of BusinessGreen.com

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