Chris Huhne and David Cameron never tire of claiming that the coalition will be “the greenest government ever” – and media reports had lead us to believe ambitious new policies would be announced in yesterday’s speech by Chris Huhne. But in the end it was only the rhetoric that was ambitious.
All politicians are of course prone to rhetoric. But the public know that no carbon was ever abated, and no wind farms built, by politicians’ words – especially not those from a conference podium. In today’s speech, Huhne told us how the government’s Green Investment Bank will “turbo-charge change”. Yet this government has abandoned plans to give the Green Investment Bank any money. The public judge us by what we do, not what we say.
On taking on the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne has taken over a department with a insubstantial to-do list: 1: insulate all homes; 2: take a lead on international negotiations; 3: change public behaviour patterns; and 4: revolutionise the energy sector, for starters.
And he has not made a great start. Let’s take the energy sector as an example. In order to rise to the challenge of our global need for low carbon energy, billions need to be invested and we have to get the infrastructure right.
Revolutionising our energy sector is simply not going to happen without clear long-term leadership. But at the moment we are seeing delay and contradictory signals from the government: whether that is from the nonsensical decision not to go ahead with the commercial loan to Sheffield Forgemasters (which would have guaranteed large numbers of green manufacturing jobs) or the their dithering over whether or not to confirm their agreement to Labour’s Renewable Heat Incentive (which would open the gate to solar energy, air source & ground pump heating in substantial numbers of homes).
The government should be moving offshore wind into 5th gear. Under Labour Britain became a world leader in offshore wind. The grant of ‘Round 3’ rights paves the way for the biggest offshore wind expansion in the world. The North East coast of Britain is looking forward to a future as the Energy Coast. The Dogger Bank Zone east of Yorkshire has the potential for approximately 13GW, which equates to around 10 per cent of total UK electricity requirements.
The new generation of turbines are going to be massive and really should be built here and not in Germany or Holland. And if we continue to stay ahead of the rest of Europe we could end up exporting turbines elsewhere. The major players in the field acknowledge this and are keen to get going. But paths need to be smoothed: planning permission needs to granted, capital amassed and factories built. And building these turbines is not the whole story: our port infrastructure needs overhauling to give them space to be towed out to the North Sea.
The Labour government had an active industrial strategy that co-ordinated and channelled investment. The ports competition (Offshore Wind Infrastructure Competition) was an excellent example. Sixty million pounds of public money was being invested in a competition which was expected to pull in hundreds of millions more investment from companies like Siemens and GE and result in tens of thousands of jobs in green manufacturing. The companies have said this investment is vital to them coming here but still the coalition refuse to confirm it will go ahead. This could put Britain at the forefront of the new technologies. The new government should have been making announcements months ago. But nothing. We sit and wait.
The deficit may be the coalition's major preoccupation, but how can we ever pay off the deficit without growth and growth in green manufacturing industry is key. The Lib Dems used to believe in this.
Whilst there may be little difference between the parties’ rhetoric on the issue of Climate Change, Labour’s belief in the role of government in tackling this crisis is the major fault line. We believe that climate change is the ultimate free market failure. We have to intervene. It’s up to government to provide leadership, direction, and investment. On the other hand the coalition agreement, the document that created this government, proclaims that “the days of big government are over.”
People will quickly tire of rhetoric on climate change unless it is backed up by clear and decisive action. The secretary of state used the world ‘revolution’ seven times in his speech today. But revolutions are more than talk.