The environmental credibility of the Liberal Democrats is under threat.
Its general election manifesto was easily the most ambitious of all the main parties, with the environment firmly at the heart of every policy area.
So our hopes were high when the party joined forces with Cameron’s Conservatives last year – and higher still when one of the new Prime Minister’s first acts was a promise to lead the greenest Government ever.
Twelve months on the picture looks much bleaker.
Friends of the Earth asked the former chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathon Porritt, to review the Coalition’s first year in office. His assessment was pretty damning.
Little or no progress was seen in over three quarters of the 77 environmental policies examined – with the current chances of Cameron’s green pledge being kept described as “vanishingly remote.”
“The Prime Minister’s own credibility is at stake here”, Porritt concluded, “as is that of the Liberal Democrats who have clearly failed to use their influence inside the Coalition to ensure a better performance on the environment and sustainable development.”
And this credibility tumbled further this week when it emerged that a number of Ministers are lobbying hard for the Government to reject the advice of its official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change, for tougher UK action on global warming.
Chief among its recommendations is the need for UK emissions to be cut by 60 per cent by 2030, based on 1990 levels.
The advice – which has never before been rejected – is based on the latest science and takes account of the current economic situation. It’s been supported by many of the UK’s leading companies, including Tesco, Shell, EDF Energy, Unilever and Lloyds, whose leaders recently wrote to David Cameron urging him to heed the advice and reiterating “our longstanding support for strong and clear action on climate change, based on the science.”
Astonishingly one of the Ministers opposed to the committee’s advice is Business Secretary Vince Cable – whose department has responsibility for science.
Up to now, we’d assumed that Vince Cable was a huge advocate of tough action on climate change.
Look on the Lib Dem website under Zero Carbon Britain – Taking a lead, and there’s Vince’s face peering over the ‘what we stand for’ caption.
“A reduction in emissions of the magnitude that we are advocating will only happen if developed countries such as the UK take the lead by cutting their own emissions”, it says.
This issue is of fundamental importance. If the Government snubs the climate committee’s advice it will be impossible for the UK to make the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that the latest science says is necessary.
It will make it easier for future governments to ignore the recommendations of its official climate advisor.
It will undermine our position on the global stage. Which is why Foreign Secretary William Hague is one of those backing the Committee’s advice.
And trust in the Liberal Democrats’ green agenda will evaporate.
Chris Huhne fought hard in opposition for the Climate Change Act. He repeatedly pressed the Labour administration to set a series of regular targets to give investors and industry confidence that Government would cut emissions steadily over time, so they’d know their investment in low carbon products and services would be rewarded.
He lambasted long-distance climate goals as “NIMTO” targets – which look good on paper, but in reality are “not in my term of office” – leaving the Government of the day under no pressure to act, because they won’t be in power when the target was missed.
Chris Huhne has an admirable track record on these issues. This is why he must seriously consider his position if the Government refuses to take the committee’s advice.
Andy Atkins is Friends of the Earth’s Executive Director.
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