Nick Clegg taunts David Cameron on ‘green crap’ | Damian Carrington | Environment |

Nick Clegg taunts David Cameron on ‘green crap’ | Damian Carrington | Environment |


The heart of the LibDem green offer to voters at the general election is its five “green laws”.

Nick Clegg, addressing his party conference summarised them like this: “Laws that will commit British governments to reducing carbon from our electricity sector. Create new, legal targets for clean air and water. Give everyone access to green space. Massively boost energy efficiency and renewable energy. Prioritise the shift to green cars. Bring an end to dirty coal.”

As Clegg also said, rather more pithily: “It’s not green crap to us.” Energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey told delegates: “The five green laws are the most radical green offer ever made by a political party.”

So it is strange how little talk there has been of the green laws at the conference. Legal targets to finally clean up the polluted air in our cities could, if effective, be transformative, but they have been barely mentioned.

One delegate from the conference floor warned the party that unless the laws were put front and centre of the Lib Dems campaigning it would be seen only as “window dressing”. I think he had a point: the laws were rather quietly announced on 1 September, as people stumbled back from summer holidays, not how you would release a blockbuster policy.

As a party potentially facing electoral armageddon, the Lib Dems seem have decided attack is the best form of defence. It works well for a junior coalition partner: blame the other side for all that’s gone wrong, claim the credit for what went right. And there were plenty of potshots at the Conservatives in Glasgow, many from Davey who said he had been waging an “insurgent battle”.

Some hit the bullseye. “I still have to battle Eric Pickles on onshore wind. It has been growing fast under us … But the Tories don’t like this. Day after day they’ve urged me to cap onshore wind. I’ve just said no,” Davey said, noting that onshore wind, being the cheapest green energy, helps keeps bills and carbon down.

There was a second salvo against the communities secretary. “Mr Pickles – who claims to be a champion of localism – has been calling in every onshore wind planning application he can [over 50 to date]. Interfering with the independent Planning Inspectorate process. Over-riding decisions of elected councillors. Mr Pickles is in danger of bringing the planning system into disrepute. Of abusing ministerial power.” I quite agree.

Davey also took aim at the Tory obsession with fracking. “I have had to hold back the Tories’ desire to frack every square mile of Britain. Ensuring that gas exploration is safe. Protecting our national parks, areas of outstanding beauty and world heritage sites.”

It’s true that many senior Conservatives have overhyped shale gas, but it’s also true that Davey’s department, under Liberal Democrat control for the entire parliament, is allowing fracking in national parks and scrapping trespass laws allowing homeowners to object to drilling under their feet. And he remains a happy fracker: “I’d far rather use Britain’s gas, than Putin’s gas. Or even Middle East gas.”

Davey had some new announcements, most welcome after thetumbleweed blowing through the Tory party conference on green policy. But with power has come the responsibility to be held to account for your record, and that record rather undermines some of the new ideas.

“Coal is the climate destroyer. [So] we will legislate to ban the generation of electricity from coal from 2025,” Davey said. But late on Friday his policy to ensure the lights stay on was revealed as set to give billions in subsidy to old coal plants.

Davey also dragged an extra £100m from the Treasury – no mean feat – to incentivise the failing green deal energy efficiency programme. The good news is we know it works. There was such a rush for the first round, Davey had to slam the door shut in July. The bad news is the industry immediately criticised it as a sticking plaster until the election and said stop-start policies just damage business confidence. Even LibDem MPs admit privately that the green deal has flopped.

Davey re-announced the LibDem proposal to give a £100 a year discount off council tax for homeowners who boost the energy efficiency of their homes by two energy bands. Will Labour’s offer of a million interest-free loans for green upgrades be more appealing? I’ll let you decide.

Davey claimed credit for the UK’s first community energy strategy. Community energy is vital as it engages people and obliterates nimbyism. But why did the LidDem-run department wait till the the final year of government to get it going?

There was praise for Davey, who said he had “bunked off” the conference, to meet European energy ministers negotiating the EU’s crucial 2030 energy and climate deal: the UK had been a “leader”, said those attending. But it was a little undermined by news on the same day that the European Commission was ditching its attempt to label oil from Canadian tar sands as highly polluting: the UK had secretly given high level help to Canada to defeat the plan.

Governing in coalition is hard and compromises abound. A handy example is the decision today by the European Union to give state aid approval for the multi-billion subsidy package Davey has granted EDF to build a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point.

Their anti-nuclear stance has been one of the sacred cows slaughtered on the altar of coalition by the LibDems: in 2006 Davey said nuclear was only “possible with vast taxpayer subsidies or a rigged market”. He says the reason for his U-turn is simple – climate change – but he still can’t say whether nuclear will compete without subsidies.

“Do I think [subsidies for nuclear] will go to zero? I don’t know, because I can’t tell the future,” he told me. “But what I do know is that [the policies] we’ve got will reduce the cost of supporting low-carbon, in all its different forms, to the lowest imaginable because we are bringing in competition in the market.”

The Lib Dems have a decent overall record on energy and climate change – doubling renewable energy – and new thoughts with which to go forward. But they haven’t been held back in their ambition by the Conservatives quite as much as they like to portray. Davey’s former minister, the Conservative Greg Barker, provocatively said recently that Davey is “a bit right-wing for me. I would favour slightly more radical market interventions.”

How to balance markets and regulation in delivering a low-carbon economy is the key question in energy and environment policy. Voters will judge whether the Lib Dem-led department of energy and climate change got that balance right.

Badger cull

The Conservatives have committed to continuing the badger cull, intended to curb TB in cattle, and Labour have committed to ending it. The Lib Dem position sits in the middle which is, well, very Lib Dem. Baroness Parminter, the Lib Dem spokeswoman in the Lords, would not rule out continuing the cull pilots, but her remarks also indicated that the night-time shoots are on very shaky ground.

The Lib Dem position was, she said: “We will not allow the culls to be extended if they are not proved safe, humane, effective.”

The independent panel, now disbanded, found the 2013 culls were neither effective nor humane. Parminter said the lack of independent oversight in 2014 is a worry, as it meant the different sides of the debate might not have confidence in the cull result. It isn’t clear what that all meant for Lib Dem policy on the cull. I would have asked the environment minister Dan Rogerson, but he didn’t turn up to the environment Q&A session.