Last weekend wasn’t a good one for the environmental agenda.
First came a DECC press release containing proposals that will give rise to a new ‘dash for gas’ in the UK. The announcement means that new gas power stations will not need to be more efficient or less polluting. It is part of the Treasury’s anti-green agenda which holds the misguided view that green policies are anti-growth and increase costs for businesses and households. This is despite the fact that recent hikes in power bills have been largely due to large increases in wholesale gas prices.
(Incidentally, the release was embargoed until late on a Friday night the weekend before the budget. Hmmm.)
And it gets worse. Today, the Government has announced that 174 environmental regulations are to be scrapped, merged, liberalised or simplified as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge.
To give some context, reports began circulating last month that a Cabinet Office drive, led by Oliver Letwin, was seeking to simplify environmental regulations in the same manner as controversial attempts to cut planning regulations from 1,000 to just 52 pages. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has seemingly not been part of discussions on the issue, which took place between Letwin and a number of Cabinet Office and DEFRA officials.
Letwin followed that up with a somewhat contradictory public statement which said all environmental regulations had been deemed necessary but could be ‘a great deal simpler’.
This week’s proposed changes, which are being strongly encouraged by the Treasury, are a real threat to Britain’s natural environment. Yet little clarity has been provided on how they will save businesses money. Moreover, in the long term, the costs of environmental damage will ultimately be picked up by the tax payer.
At Spring Conference, Vince Cable made a pledge to “confront the old-fashioned negative thinking which says that all Government needs to do to generate growth is cut worker and environmental protections.”
As a Party, we all need to follow suit and take steps to actively challenge this misguided, out-of-touch Conservative orthodoxy.
This means two things:
Firstly, with energy prices climbing there is an urgent need for a loud, credible and coherent narrative which shows that greater reliance on volatile gas supplies is dangerous for businesses and consumers.
We should apply pressure for a tightening of gas plant emissions levels. This is in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s own independent advisers. The Committee says that electricity generation should be almost carbon-free by 2030 if it is to remain on course to decarbonise the power sector by 2050, yet the Government’s plans (which would allow unabated gas plants to operate until 2045) deviate from this approach, raising serious questions about how this target will be met.
To help the UK meets its emissions targets, we also need a robust system of ‘capacity payments’, which adequately reward gas plants for not running at full capacity. Capacity payments, which form part of the Coalition’s Electricity Market Reform Proposals, would ensure that companies have adequate incentives to invest in flexible capacity which can be used to meet peaks in demand. Robust capacity payments can also support and encourage investment in renewable generation, which tends to be more intermittent and inflexible. Such investment is currently stuttering in the UK.
Secondly, we must continue to advocate policies which harness environmental protection to generate long-term growth rather than destroying it in the hope of making short-term profits.
Making special provisions to grant borrowing powers to the Green Investment Bank would be a fine place to start. Delivering on a long-held commitment to fund four Carbon Capture and Storage projects and doing more to encourage an increase in Combined Heat and Power capacity would help generate jobs and growth while going some way to providing assurances that future fossil fuel generation will be able to proceed in an efficient and cleaner manner.
Policies which create a greater dependence on gas and tear apart environmental protection will do nothing to help the UK economy in its hour of need. At this pressing time, it is vital that we stand up and re-state our environmental credentials in a language that makes economic sense as well as common sense.
* Ben Wood is a member of the Liberal Sustainability Network.