The Independent View: Conference 2013: Lib Dems must stand up for the environment

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?

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Andy Atkins is Executive Director at Friends of the Earth.

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16 Comments

  • Julian Tisi 11th Sep '13 - 1:11pm

    “lurking within are two very ungreen proposals: support for fracking and nuclear power.”
    Sorry, but I disagree. The two are separate issues but ultimately come down to the energy mix that we need to cope with the “tri-lemma” of making energy sources reliable, affordable and clean. The sad reality is that there is no one source of energy that is all three – apart from energy efficiency, that is (the cheapest form of energy is using less). Renewables alone won’t keep the lights on – until we have the technology to store electricity in any meaningful quantity, we will still need energy sources to manage fluctuating demand. This is why we need gas as part of the energy mix – and we can either extract it ourselves or import it. Renewables are also relatively very expensive compared with other sources of energy. Yes, the cost is coming down – but from a high base. As for nuclear, it’s quite simply the cheapest reliable source of low-carbon energy out there. It has to be part of the mix if we’re serious about reducing our impact on the environment. That the green movement opposes nuclear so heavily is a very sad irony.

    It’s testament to the Lib Dems in government that environmental concerns have been kept well and truly on the agenda in determining the energy mix for the next few decades. It would be easy (and many Tories would prefer) to ignore climate change and focus only on affordability and reliability of energy. But in our focus on the carbon impact of our energy mix we shouldn’t make the opposite mistake and ignore affordability and reliability.

  • Simon McGrath 11th Sep '13 - 1:35pm

    “But their extraction is a real threat to communities and the environment”
    Could you give us a single peer reveiwed scientifc source for this assertion?

    Or explain why you ignore the Royal Society report http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/shale-gas-extraction/report/

  • Peter Hayes 11th Sep '13 - 1:51pm

    At the last election the Greens in Cheltenham chose not to have a candidate but advise their supporters to vote for Martin Horwood. I wonder what they will do in 2015 if Martin votes with the majority Conservatives in the coalition.

  • Richard Dean 11th Sep '13 - 2:00pm

    In what way has nuclear power “delivered little”. This country uses a lot of it every day!

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Sep '13 - 2:24pm

    Andy Atkins

    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.

    It always seemed like a cynical sound bite. As with “big society”,the Tory leadership and PR people used the words, but only with the vaguest hand-waving gestures as to what they meant by them. It ought to have been obvious that there was a direct contradiction between what it would take to do something serious on these lines, and the reality of the Tories being the party of extreme free market economics. I found it remarkable that at the time of the election so many commentators took the Tories for their word on these things, and used them to write up Cameron as if he was some sort of very moderate Tory. The reality is that the party he leads is well to the right of the party as it was when it was last in government, and that in turn was well to the right of the Conservative Party as it was earlier in the 20th century. I actually do think the LibDems have done more than they are credited for in terms of moderating them, but even so they are so far to the right that even the moderated version ends up as the most right-wing government this country has had in anyone’s lifetime.

  • nuclear cockroach 11th Sep '13 - 2:58pm

    @Simon McGrath

    Do you deny that climate change is a threat to the environment?

    Or do you deny that the Royal Society report states categorically that the climate change impact due to fracking was excluded from the scope of the report, and that a study of this impact was necessary?

  • Julian Tisi 11th Sep '13 - 3:18pm

    @ nuclear cockcroach
    The impact on climate change is common to all forms of gas extraction – whether by fracking or “conventional” forms of extraction. If you oppose fracking on these grounds, you should also oppose north sea gas extraction.

  • nuclear cockroach 11th Sep '13 - 3:21pm

    @Julian Tisi

    Fracking will result in new, additional sources of greenhouse gases. Unless some subsequent report from the Royal Society, or other body of similar authority, says otherwise.

  • nuclear cockroach 11th Sep '13 - 3:32pm

    On this I certainly agree with Joe Otten. Reduction in greenhouse emissions should take priority.

  • nuclear cockroach 11th Sep '13 - 5:01pm

    @Simon Oliver

    Thanks for that reference. David McKay also published a very readable layman’s introduction to the challenges facing energy choices in the UK, that was “Sustainable Energy — without the hot air”, which is available online.

    His conclusions are undoubtedly sound. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start with the easiest parts of decarbonising our economy, before waiting for new technologies, or making difficult choices later. Nor does it mean that we should simply throw up our hands and say it is all too difficult, nor should it be seen as succour for the carbon lobby, which it certainly isn’t.

  • @Peter Hayes – For the record Martin Horwood, as well as being staunchly anti-nuclear, voted in favour of a decarbonisation target (and against the Coalition) when the Energy Bill was debated in the Commons in June. He was joined in rebelling on the issue by half the backbench Liberal Democrat Party, reducing the Government majority to just 23 (full list here )

    Given the large amount of support for a target from Crossbench Peers and Bishops as well as Labour, reflecting the huge amount of support across civil society and business, it is entirely possible to win a target in the Lords when it is voted on in the next month or so – but it needs a similar amount of support from Lib Dem Peers as it garnered in the Commons from Lib Dem MPs. That would make Osborne’s plans for 40 new gas power stations impossible .

  • @ Joe Otten – here are two plans for decarbonising power without nuclear
    1) A Plan for Clean British Energy (Friends of the Earth)
    http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings/plan_cbe_report.pdf
    2) Positive Energy (WWF)
    http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/positive_energy_final_designed.pdf and summary blog here: http://www.wwf.org.uk/wwf_articles.cfm?unewsid=5356

    Hope that helps!

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