For a fleeting moment in May 2010 there was genuine optimism that the environment might be put at the heart of Britain’s political agenda.
With a coalition of Liberal Democrats, praised by many, including Friends of the Earth, for their manifesto’s prioritisation of environmental issues, joining forces with a ‘vote blue, go green’ Tory party, fresh from championing the Climate Change Act, it looked as if yellow and blue really could produce green.
But three and a half years later Cameron’s pledge to lead the “greenest Government ever” now seems little more than a cynical sound bite.
Perhaps less expected is the extent to which Liberal Democratic Ministers seem to be going along with the scuppering of this once flag ship commitment.
Of course there’s some merit in the view that things would have been worse without the Lib Dems. Agreeing the fourth carbon budget – setting 2027 emission-cutting targets – and securing short-term cash for renewable projects, owe much to Lib Dem pressure.
But faced with coalition partners prepared to ditch their environmental credentials as a sop to an increasingly vocal right wing it’s clear Lib Dems aren’t fighting nearly hard enough to hold the green line. Voting against a 2030 Energy Bill decarbonisation target – against party policy and provoking the largest back-bench rebellion since tuition fees – was a notable low point.
With the Prime Minister joining the push to frack the countryside and Osborne banging the drum for dirty gas to be the fuel of the next decade, we need Liberal Democrats to push for clean power. Instead we’ve had Ed Davey speeches enthusiastically backing fossil fuels, and near silence from Nick Clegg.
Now, less than two years before the general election, the challenge is on for Lib Dems to repair the party’s battered environmental credibility – starting at this week’s annual conference.
Sunday is environment day, and green growth and jobs motion is chock-a-block with eco-promises. But lurking within are two very ungreen proposals: support for fracking and nuclear power.
Shale gas and oil have been hugely over-hyped. There’s plenty of evidence they won’t bring down energy bills. But their extraction is a real threat to communities and the environment. And keeping Britain hooked on fossil fuels will completely undermine UK Climate targets.
Nuclear power has promised much and delivered little. Investing more in costly reactors and its eye-wateringly expensive radioactive legacy is likely to be a huge financial mistake – and syphon money away from clean energy.
The only sensible answer to the nation’s energy challenges is energy efficiency and renewable power – which is why power sector decarbonisation is essential.
On Sunday Lib Dems will also be asked to back legally-binding powers, “as soon as possible”, for a decarbonisation target.
But while supporting the motion, the Lib Dem leadership is also instructing peers to oppose the inclusion of these very powers in the Energy Bill, when it’s debated in the Lords in a few weeks’ time.
The real test of any party’s credibility is how they act when they can genuinely change things. Backing decarbonisation after the next general election – when the Lib Dems may be out of power and the go-ahead already given for Osborne’s fleet of new gas power stations – may well be too late.
It’s time for the Liberal Democrats to show their true colours. But will they be green?
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* Andy Atkins is Executive Director at Friends of the Earth.