The Independent View: The major environmental tests facing the Liberal Democrats in 2012 (Part 1)

The Liberal Democrats have long been seen as the greenest of the biggest three political parties. Now in government, the party is facing tough decisions with huge implications both for our country’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and for wider protection of the natural world.

During his time in office Lib Dem Climate Secretary Chris Huhne won a couple of significant battles with Cabinet colleagues. Most notably, despite opposition from the Chancellor, he won the backing of David Cameron to put into law tough new carbon targets for the 2020s that were recommended by their independent advisers the Committee on Climate Change. He also helped to achieve the establishment of a new Green Investment Bank to support development of strong new clean industries in the UK.

When Huhne stepped down this month, the influential political commentator Andrew Rawnsley rightly wrote that “he brought a passion for the green agenda combined with the intellect and the clout to increase the influence of a department often previously dismissed as a bit of a Whitehall lightweight.”

But in 2012, the Lib Dems face their biggest environmental tests yet. In the first of two posts looking at what these are, I’ll focus on the home front.

Bring down energy bills and reduce energy use.

Millions of us are feeling the economic squeeze, not least through astronomical energy bills. The energy regulator OFGEM has highlighted the main reason for this rise in bills: oil and gas prices. As OFGEM put it themselves, “Wholesale energy costs have continued to rise, particularly for gas, where for example the price of this winter’s gas is around 40% higher than last winter’s. This increase has been driven by global rises in oil and gas prices. This has contributed significantly to recent increases in customers’ bills.” The Committee on Climate Change examined the reason for the rise in bills. They found, “The Committee concludes that recent bill increases are primarily due to increased wholesale gas costs.”

With this in mind it’s crazy that some academics like Dieter Helm and big energy companies like British Gas are pushing for an approach that would see the UK become even more reliant upon burning gas. New Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey must instead ensure his new energy law massively reduces our energy consumption, reduces our reliance upon gas, and so helps insulate consumers from volatile fossil fuel prices. A strong emphasis on energy efficiency, including mechanisms to support large-scale energy efficiency measures in businesses, can bring down bills whilst simultaneously bringing down pollution.

 We need a carbon-free power sector by 2030

The new energy law that Ed Davey will oversee this year will have a huge influence over how much heat and electricity is generated and from what sort of power stations. Since around 85% of the UK’s emissions come from energy generation and use, Ed Davey’s choice of energy policies will in turn largely determine what our national carbon footprint will be for decades to come. The energy companies are lobbying to build lots of new gas-fired power stations. This could drive up emissions, and could drive up bills too. The government’s independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, say that the best and most affordable way to cut emissions in line with the Climate Change Act is to make our power generation sector almost carbon-free by 2030. Ed Davey needs to stand up to the big energy companies and write the CCC’s recommendations into his new energy law. We need a carbon-free power sector by 2030, underpinned by strict Emission Performance Standards for all the new fossil fuel power stations, so that we don’t become over reliant upon expensive and polluting gas, and our carbon targets aren’t put beyond reach.

Stand up to George Osborne to protect wildlife and countryside protection rules

George Osborne believes that the laws which protect the crown jewels of the British countryside including our most cherished wildlife sites like the New Forest and the Norfolk Broads are a burden to business. Reports suggest that the Chancellor and some of his Cabinet colleagues want a radical reduction in the protection afforded to Britain’s natural environment. They have already announced a review of how we implement European laws to protect our most endangered species and habitats, and introduced planning reforms which will make it easier for developers to concrete over the countryside. Nick Clegg and all of the Lib Dems need to stand up for wildlife and our precious countryside and stop this from happening.

In my next post, I’ll look at the key environmental decisions for the Lib Dems on the international stage.

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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6 Comments

  • Daniel Henry 22nd Feb '12 - 3:46pm

    If the article is correct the fossil fuels are rising in price while renewables will drop the more we invest in them.

    By this logic, the more we invest in renewables, the more we save in the long run.

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