First 100 Days - Defining a Green Agenda for Government
Defining a Green Agenda for Government
Oliver Hayes is a campaigner in the Political and Legal team at Friends of the Earth.
As an environmental campaigner, I’m sometimes told by politicians that green issues are not doorstep issues, that constituents couldn’t care less about the planet when they’ve got bills to pay, mouths to feed – and even the odd holiday to take. Any campaigner worth their salt will tell you it’s a false dilemma. Protecting the environment and improving people’s living standards are one and the same.
Take energy bills, probably the issue on which Ed Miliband’s leadership is characterised more than any other. They’ve been rising exponentially for the last decade, far outstripping inflation. That’s terrible news for people struggling to keep their families warm. It’s also terrible news for the planet – the companies raking in the profits have a vested interest in keeping us hooked on dirty gas. Forget the ‘green crap’ charade, it’s the wholesale cost of gas that is primarily responsible for this rise in energy bills. The policy solutions required from a progressive government are sometimes boring but often obvious. For example, insulating the nation’s cold homes to a decent standard would also create jobs and boost local economies everywhere there are houses that need insulating. If these measures were carried out on a street by street basis the cost and inconvenience would be kept to a minimum. The poorest households should be prioritised, with those able to pay towards the cost insulated next.
A progressive government will need to stop hedging their bets on energy policy. This will mean closing the door on the fossil fuels of the past – 80% of which have to stay in the ground to avoid the worst climate change – and turbo boosting the renewables revolution by giving communities the power to own and generate their own electricity. It really is a revolution. In January wind out-performed nuclear and recent sunny weather saw solar produce enough electricity to meet the needs of 2 million homes – the equivalent energy for every house in Wales. The next Government must embrace and enhance this technology.
The next Government must demonstrate a sea change in thinking, prioritising protecting and restoring the environment for future generations. The devastating cuts in the 1980s led to, among other things, chronic underinvestment in parks and green spaces. For many people living in urban areas these provide the only opportunity to feel something other than concrete under their feet and to have the space – literally – to breathe clean air. Alongside this, there are also profound benefits for mental and physical human health to safeguarding the natural environment, which should never be overlooked. The countryside is in no less of a precarious position, with copious pesticide use wiping out the pollinators on which so much human food relies.
Another thing environmentalists are accused of is doom-mongering, an obsession with clouds and an aversion to silver linings. The hard truth is, things are not great – it’s difficult to put a positive spin on, for instance, the news last year that half of the world’s vertebrate wildlife (i.e. all animals, excluding insects) has disappeared in the last 40 years. Or, for example, that rather than meet air pollution targets to bring down dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide in many of the UK’s big cities, the current government has been fighting the targets in the courts.
We need a government to set a vision for a valued and thriving environment and to acknowledge that if we are to achieve a fair, good life for all of us, there must be a recognition that we are part of that environment.
The first 100 days of a new government is not just a symbolic number. Containing a Queen’s Speech and a likely Emergency Budget, it’s the period where the new executive signals their priorities for office. The first Queen's Speech and Budget should put the UK on the path to defining a clear green agenda for government. This must include doing our fair share to avert runaway climate change; looking after nature; helping those suffering most from dangerous environments; and putting sustainable development at the heart of economic policy.
If a progressive government is serious about tackling climate change and protecting the environment, the first Queen's Speech should include a commitment to end fracking and a promise to phase out of fossil fuel extraction in the UK. There should be a legal commitment to making electricity almost entirely carbon-free by 2030 and a promise to shut down all old coal plants by 2023. In the first Budget, the Chancellor should announce an end to public money or tax relief for producing fossil fuels or nuclear power. In addition, a progressive government that allowed schools to have the power to borrow to invest in solar would signal a move towards cleaner, more sustainable energy creation. Within the first 100 days a new government should also launch a Treasury-led comprehensive review that could analyse the threats posed to the UK economy in an increasingly resource-constrained world.
A green agenda for government must prioritise ensuring that energy efficiency becomes a core part of national infrastructure policy. There should be guaranteed funding to enable the insulation of 4 million homes up to efficiency standard C by 2020.
There will also need to be a clear actions to protect the natural world and meet international environmental obligations. There should be funding available for a package of measures to cut air pollution to World Health Organisation recommended limits, including a network of Low Emission Zones in every UK city. A key policy to protect wildlife, particularly the beleaguered bee, would be the re-introduction of the National Pollinator Strategy and an extension of the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. Furthermore, a progressive UK Government must oppose the EU-US Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the murky detail of which would further shackle Britain to a fossil fuel intensive energy system and put downward pressure on existing environmental regulation.
The ability of environmental campaigners to speak truth to power on these issues and many more has been attacked by the Coalition government’s pernicious Lobbying Act. A progressive government must repeal the Act upon taking office, and ensure this comes into effect before the 2016 devolved administration elections so that true democratic discussions can take place about the impact of policy decisions.
There’s much more to be done to define a real and effective green agenda for government. We will watch the first 100 days with interest to see exactly how progressive the next government intends to be.