April 24th, 2012
by Phillip Ward
Of all the ideological tussles going on within the coalition government, perhaps the one least in the public eye is that over the environment. It is too simple to say that the debate splits down party lines. That would be unfair on some Conservatives – like Tim Yeo – who genuinely get the point. And it may be too generous to some Liberal Democrats – like Nick Clegg.
But it was the Deputy Prime Minister who made a speech on 11th April arguing that the need for austerity strengthens rather than undermines the case for action on the environment, and highlighting policies such as the Green Deal that are intended to revolutionise investment in energy efficiency and help consumers save money and reduce carbon emissions. The following weekend the press carried prominent – therefore briefed – stories that senior conservatives were determined to scrap the Green Deal. So far, all they have achieved is a decision to scrap a proposed change to building controls which would have made anyone making changes to a house upgrade the insulation at the same time, but I suspect that this will not be the end of green strife within the coalition.
Liberals and democrats
The debate over the Green Deal illuminates one of the philosophical differences between and within the parties. Both contain economic “liberals” who tend to regard only the choices made in response to current conditions and price signals as “natural”, reflecting the exercise of free will. They are therefore superior to choices made in response to the meddling (“rigged” prices or regulations) favoured by those of a more social democratic persuasion (including some Tory “wets”), who see these as essential to bring about wider benefits to society. Free marketeers may allow that people may be “nudged” to make better decisions – but not cajoled, hectored, bullied or fined.
Coverage of Clegg’s speech largely ignored its clear intent to challenge the view of the Chancellor that environmental policies are an expensive luxury which will hamstring economic recovery.
Discussing how pursuing environmental improvements can help people with the consequences of the austerity programme he said “As we learn to live within our economic means we can learn to live within our environmental means too”. That is a powerful thought, but unfortunately he did not go on to develop it. He hinted that he would say more on this in the run up to the Rio 20+ conference in June, which he, and not the Prime Minister, is attending. I, for one, would like to hear more about the government’s thinking here because, the rhetoric of Clegg’s speech aside, all the evidence so far is that the priority is old-fashioned growth based on consumption.
Her aim is Rio
If there is another model in gestation there is not much time to develop it. Defra and Caroline Spelman are in charge of the UK’s preparations for Rio. So far we have seen only very high-level UK aspirations for the outcomes including a proposal for new ways of international accounting (GDP+) which would bring the value of natural resources within national balance sheets.
This is not a bad idea and, as befits its age, it is showing some maturity. But they will need more if Rio 20+ is going to start the world moving towards living within its environmental means. The recent experience of the Green Deal also points to the difficulty Spelman will encounter persuading her own colleagues if she tries to develop a more substantial set of proposals.
The Sustainable Development Commission could have helped Clegg and Spelman develop these ideas. Pity it’s just been wound up.