Are we heading for a ‘Greener’ or a ‘Greenwash’ Britain?

Last night, the Green Alliance brought together a high calibre panel to answer questions from an invited audience – which included the BES’s policy staff – at the ‘Greener Britain‘ debate. We listened with interest as Ed Davey (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), his Shadow – Caroline Flint – Liz Truss (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and Caroline Lucas MP (Green Party) debated issues including climate change, sustainable transport and energy policy. Yet the audience was clearly disheartened by the tone of discussion and the commitments promised by the panel: at the close of the event, 70% of those present expressed, through audience voting, their lack of optimism that the next Government will make progress on the environment. The audience’s pessimism actually increased through the course of the debate: a vote taken at the beginning of the evening suggested 64% of attendees lacked confidence that improvements would be made to environmental policy post-election.

A noticeable difference from our own recent hustings debate, organised with our partners at the Sibthorp Trust and CIEEM, was the comparative lack of consensus between the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Party politicians. This perhaps reflects the closer proximity of the Green Alliance event to the General Election, when the stakes are perhaps higher. All of the panellists agreed that climate change was however the most significant environmental issue to be tackled by the next Government, although Liz Truss was clear that other important issues ranked equally alongside this (air and water pollution, for example). Caroline Lucas called for a ‘new architecture’ of policy-making to be be set up post-election, with an ‘Office of Environmental Responsibility’ and ombudsman to oversee decision-making that affects the environment. Caroline Flint meanwhile highlighted inequalities in access to green space in the UK as an issue requiring urgent attention, ensuring public engagement with nature and support for climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, a position also supported by Liz Truss.

Yet although recognising the importance of tackling climate change, all parties differed in their suggested approaches to doing so. Liz Truss, whilst strongly reiterating her party’s commitment to meeting the stringent target of 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (as set out in the Climate Change Act), stated that producers and consumers would be given the freedom to innovate over time to deliver this. Carbon pricing and new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, were the major mechanisms by which a Conservative Government would work towards the 2050 objective. Caroline Lucas, in contrast, heavily criticised the Coalition Government for putting into statute measures to maximise the economic returns of fossil fuels, describing this as ‘peverse’. Instead, Ms Lucas argued, two thirds to 80% of fossil fuels must remain in the ground in order to prevent further global warming.

One questioner asked the politicians for their views on the likely impact on environmental policy and the development of clean technologies of an exit from the European Union. The Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Labour all agreed that an exit from the EU would be a ‘disaster’ for environmental policy in the UK. Ed Davey suggested that the credibility of the UK going into the UNFCCC climate change negotiations in Paris in December this year (COP 21) would be severely weakened if at the same time discussions were proceeding at home about a referendum and exit from the EU. Caroline Lucas raised the interesting point that EU standards for environmental protection are often seen by Member States as a ‘ceiling’ rather than a ‘floor’ and that in fact they may constrain countries wishing to go over and above them. Ms Lucas suggested that there is room for improving how the EU conducts itself and to reform its aim to fostering sustainability rather than global competition, with aggressive trade practices damaging developing countries.

Perhaps the most contentious issue raised during the debate was fracking. Ed Davey was clear that a great deal of gas will be needed over the next few years to meet our energy demands in the UK. Mr Davey was unequivocal in his point that a climate change gain would be possible by replacing natural gas – currently imported into the UK via energy and fuel intensive processes – with shale gas extracted in this country. Liz Truss was clear too that reports by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering suggest that, given adequate regulation and protections in place, fracking was safe for the environment. Caroline Flint said that under a Labour Government, fracking would not go ahead unless particular regulations proposed by the party were included on the statute book – an echo of Barry Gardiner MP’s response to a similar question at our ‘People, Politics and the Planet’ debate. Caroline Lucas however described as ‘peverse’ the position of the major parties, arguing that shale gas will displace renewables and that money should not be expended to set up a new fracking industry in this country – that won’t come onstream for 10 years – whilst in the meantime missing opportunities to invest in clean sources of energy.

On the budget for Defra under the next Government, Liz Truss and Caroline Flint were both clear: under a Conservative or a Labour Government there will be cuts to the Defra budget, along with savings that will need to be made year-on-year across other government departments. Caroline Flint said that there was room for much more cross-departmental working and less work in silos as a way to find efficiencies.

Once the audience were asked to vote once again and the final scores were collated – 30% optimistic on the next Government delivering for the environment and 70% pessimistic – the chair, BBC journalist Tom Heap, asked the politicians to reflect on their performance over the course of the evening. Ed Davey agreed that politicians from all parties needed to work harder to build trust amongst the public that they have credible policies to tackle some of the major environmental challenges of the 21st century. Tom Heap urged all of the panellists to develop ambitious policies for the environment and to convince others in their parties that policies that have the environment at their heart are also vote-winners.

Further analysis of the event can be found in the Guardian.