The Independent View: Lib Dem green credibility in crisis

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.

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.

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  • You can take the Minister out of the oil company; but can you take the oil company out of the Minister?

  • What will the LIb Dems do about this?
    Fracking is a massive threat to the environment and our health.

  • I think DECC has been doing a great job. The upcoming Energy Bill is really encouraging, as are the 2050 ‘pathways’.

    Skimming through the Friends of the Earth document, I find it odd that it includes “economic and social” policies such as VAT and the tax threshold in its definition of ‘green’ policies. Remit creep, much?

    And while I’m not taking a position on this, 60% emissions cuts by 2030 seems like a lot given that the target for 2008-12 is 22% and that for 2018-22 is 34%. Am I missing something? It also seems reasonable that the EU should make a decision about its 2020 target before we decide on our 2030 one!

  • Simon McGrath 14th May '11 - 11:37am

    “Astonishingly one of the Ministers opposed to the committee’s advice is Business Secretary Vince Cable – whose department has responsibility for science.”

    Perhaps Vince is worried about the effect on jobs. The main effect of reducing our carbon emissions will be to move industries to countries like India and China which don’t have our scruples.

  • @ John Leston

    Its not entirely fair to blame Shell for Vince’s objection. Shell were one of many companies who wrote to Cameron in march urging him to tak ethe advice of the Climate Change Committee.

    @Simon McGrath

    The main effect of not moving to a low carbon economy is that we will be left locked into industries providing high carbon products and services that the rest of the world will at some point move away from. We did well out of the industrial revolution because we got their early, not because we argued China and India were still largely farming..

  • Mark Inskip 14th May '11 - 2:57pm

    So the FoE Executive Director thinks it would be better for Chris Huhne to be grumbling from the backbenches rather than fighting the cause of Climate Change at the Cabinet table?

    Now that would be politically stupid and would set back the cause of climate change for another parliament.

    As for Vince Cable, he is concerned that securing a cap on emissions trading across Europe may not happen. If this were not achieved, the UK would be left cutting carbon emissions unilaterally, which would risk putting British industry at a disadvantage compared with their competitors and could lead to significant fiscal costs. Its certainly a very valid concern for the Business Secretary to have, and it would be a bigger risk if Chris Huhne wasn’t able to play a key role in negotiating that cap.

  • paul barker 14th May '11 - 2:59pm

    To me it seems naive in the extreme to think of Porritt as some sort of neutral arbiter on Green issues. He is a Politician, an Independant but still close to Labour & The Greens, why do we just take his view as gospel ?

  • Martyn Williams 14th May '11 - 4:22pm

    @ Mark Inskip

    The point you raise one we though about hard at FOE. But the alternative is that the Liberal Democrats and Chris Huhne effectively condone soft pedalling on climate change, and allow the Conservatives to get away with breaking their pledges to do what the experts advised.

    We understand the fact that coalition means compromise – but in this case the “compromise” would be worse than either party set out before the election. That is not compromise it is climbdown. It is the equivalent of me putting my house on the market for £300k, being offered £250k and after a negotiation, settling on £200k.

    @ Paul – I know Jonathon Porritt can stick up for himself, but he has worked with (and against) all parties over the years. I don’t think Tony Blair found him that pro-Labour when he was pointing out his Government’s failings.
    Martyn Williams (Parliamentary Campaigner at FOE)

  • What matters are policies which help us cut our carbon emissions (and other green house gasses) no tsetting arbitrary targets without policies to actually meet them. I’m far more bothered about the Governments undermining of the feed in tariff for commercial scale installations which is a crazy decision.

  • @Geoffrey Payne
    “Unless and until he does I think you should be encouraging him to win it first.”

    Spot on, and everything possible within the party both in and out of westminster must be done to support his winning. It is an argument that will have electoral as well as political fallout. The Lib dems have been seen as the most Green of the big three parties. After losing left leaning voters horrified at the coalition with the Tories, Middle England voters and Students over fees, it would be absolute folly to now send voters into the arms of the green party. A thread on here just prior to the referendum showed the biggest proportion of second preference votes from Lib Dems would have gone to the Greens. That should give a huge hint to the leadership as to how the environment features in voters minds.

    Given the manifesto’s of both parties of Government this would be the issue for Clegg to show his more business like and dare I say partisan approach. It would also be appropriate to publically disagree with Cable, he cannot sit this one out and only one of them is supporting what I understand to be party policy.

  • Congratulations guys! It looks like all our comments on this thread have made the government agree to these targets!:

    And in answer to my own question about the new target being out of step with earlier ‘budgets’, it seems that the latter will be made more ambitious too.

  • @Adam C

    Unfortunately FoE appear to have already written this off as a climbdown according to Martyn Williams comments above.

  • Emsworthian 15th May '11 - 8:56am

    The Green Party now openly campaigns as the replacement to the pre-coalition Lib Dems. The real test is is what they make of Brighton Council, the first in the country, they’ve got to run. Their plans to put it kindly are courageous but have a lot of local support. As an FOE activist I see there are still too many politicians of all stripes stuck in a rut of choosing between grovvth or greeness. Some say you can have both but that assumes a completely different economic model, heavily redistributive, not one voters would welcome since it may mean less not more.
    It’s perfectly obvious that most Tories think climate change goes with the EU, the abolition of the death penalty etc as places not to go.

  • Strange there is no mention on this thread of the government’s “Red Tape Challenge”, which lists just about every current environmental law (including the Climate Change Act) as a piece of “red tape” to be considered for abolition – with the presumption in favour of abolition.

    Slightly off-topic, I know, but I couldn’t resist mentioning this quote from the latest “Specatator” by a senior Tory commenting on the AV referendum outcome: “A delicious foretaste of what we will do to the LibDems in 2015”.

    Don’t think you haven’t been warned!

  • Martyn Williams 15th May '11 - 3:47pm

    Quick round up

    @Mark Inskip: You misunderestimated us. We have welcomed (cautiously – this is newspaper report, not a formal announcement) the news that the budget will be set as recommended by the CCC. After it is set the Government will have to set out how it is to be met – we will continue to press for this to take into account the other key recommendations (no carbon trading to meet targets, toughen up earlier targets etc), but we are not going to complain about the level of the carbon budget once it is set at the level we called for.

    @Geoffrey Payne: The reason for that assumption is that we only called on Chris Huhne to resign if he lost the argument. It looks increasingly as if – as the Observer reports – he has won it, which means we don’t think he needs to go.

    @ Peter1919: of course what matters in the long run is policies that cut emissions. But this budget is part of a framework set out by the Climate Chnage Act – which was campaigned for by Friends of the Earth with great support from Liberal Democrats – that starts with budgets being set, then requires Ministers to set out how they are going to be met, then requires reports back on progress and amendment of policies if they are not working – all under the watchful eye and with the advice of an expert Committee. All of this is on a timetable required by the law. So this is a crucial step in the approach – not an arcane and disconnected setting of a random number.

  • Mark Inskip 15th May '11 - 4:51pm

    @ Martyn Williams: If I understood what ‘misunderestimate’ meant that would help but its not in the OED

    FoE misread the situation, believing the agreement was on the verge of failure. There was bound to be a robust discussion in Cabinet before a proposal such as this is agreed, and Vince Cable’s civil servants raised some important business concerns which, as Business Secretary, he would be expected to take into the discussion.

    FoE should have been supporting not threating Chris Huhne. I hope you’ve realised your mistake and take a different approach when you press for the other key recommendations.

  • Martyn Williams 15th May '11 - 9:10pm

    @ Mark

    OK – move the goal posts….but would be nice if you at least acknowledged we welcomed the announcement when you said we wouldn’t.

    A week ago we did not know what the outcome would be, but it is our job to fight for the best outcome for the environment – it is why our supporters give us their money. I challenge you to find anyone who a week ago though acceptance of the advised budget was a done deal – it was far, far from that.

    But the very reason we made the call was because we believed it would increase the pressure for the right decision. And, because we all felt that if one of us were Secretary of State for Climate Change and instructed to make smaller cuts in emissions than scientific advice said was necessary, we would have resigned. However it ought to be fairly obvious that what we wanted was the right decision, not the loss of Chris Huhne.

    It definately helped kickstart media interest and pressure on Government, though perhaps that would have built anyway. Maybe the media coverage changed the track of the decision, maybe Cameron would always have sided with Huhne. I can’t honestly say I know for sure. But faced with enormous concern across the green movement that the advice on the budget would be ignored, we gave it a try.

    The FT thought the strategy could work saying “The cabinet is unlikely to be overly flustered by the threat of angry greens. But Cameron may decide that with his Lib Dem coalition partners already politically weakened, he could ill afford for calls for the resignation of the energy secretary, and so decide to play it safe by accepting the proposals of a statutory body.”

    Others may not agree.

    And finally – “misunderestimate” is a Bushism. It was a joke. Apologies.

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