Blog: Will Tories offer climate policy competence or chaos?

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The green economy faces significant uncertainty as a Tory government with a wafer thin majority faces a host of energy and climate policy challenges.

Something truly historic and genuinely shocking has happened in the past few days. That's right, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed the monthly global concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million for the first time in human history.

Meanwhile, on a small archipelago off the coast of Europe, David Cameron pulled off the biggest political shock in a generation and is now odds-on to deliver the first Tory majority government since that last electoral surprise in 1992, albeit with a wafer thin majority that may eventually see him long for the parliamentary stability of the Major years.

For all the immense challenges Cameron now faces - delivering his promised EU renegotiation and referendum, holding the union together when it is pulling apart at the seams, identifying the unfunded spending and tax cuts he promised, navigating ever louder (and entirely justified) calls for electoral and constitutional reform - it is the response to the ongoing global climate crisis that will one day be seen to define his generation of world leaders.

There are plenty of climate scientists who reckon by the end of this parliament global greenhouse gas emissions need to be peaking in readiness for a vertiginous decline.

Cameron knows this and in those quieter moments when he is allowed to present himself as the One Nation Tory Moderniser he instinctively remains - and this morning promised to become once again - he is committed to playing his role in delivering the global green industrial revolution. But green businesses and campaigners will this morning look at the result and wonder how many of those quieter moments he will be granted over the next five years. Cameron's commitment to the Climate Change Act may be solid, but his commitment to the policies required to deliver on it has already been shown to be flaky.

Does he have the nerve, the authority and the political nous to face down climate sceptic backbenchers whose votes could be crucial? That is one of the many unanswered questions of this election for green businesses.

But first, the good news. Even if GDP is not, in the words of Boris Johnson, going gangbusters, there are signs the green economy is. Renewable energy capacity trebled over the past five years and is on track to hit a 20 per cent share by 2020. The electric car market is booming and a host of low carbon infrastructure projects, from new nuclear reactors, to CCS demonstration projects and giant offshore wind farms are in the pipeline.

The Conservatives remain committed to expanding the ultra-low emission vehicle fleet, rolling out rail electrification programmes, delivering smart meters to every building, and enhancing biodiversity protection rules, especially for marine habitats. The Tory manifesto may not have been as overtly green as the Lib Dems or Labour's, but it is not without its strengths. Moreover, the bulk of the energy industry is celebrating this morning (and share prices are jumping) as the prospect of a potentially investment-disrupting energy price 'freeze' is buried with Ed Miliband's political career.

However, if businesses can see investment and policy certainty on a number of fronts, it is tempered by chronic uncertainty on a host of other important issues.
Whoever takes up the reins at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (assuming of course it is not merged back into another department in pursuit of George Osborne's steep Whitehall spending cuts) faces one of the most daunting in-boxes in Westminster.

Within the next 18 months they need to finalise a new carbon budget for the late 2020s, secure a new Levy Control Framework for supporting clean energy projects beyond 2020, tackle the ongoing problems with UK energy efficiency policies and the scandal that is fuel poverty, sort out the future of the Renewable Heat Incentive, clarify the detail of the Tory 'halt' to onshore wind farms, address fracking protests and planning objections, support the reform of the EU emissions trading scheme, ink the long-awaited deal with EDF to deliver a new nuclear power plant, dish out the similarly long-awaited £1bn of CCS demonstration funding, execute a smart meter rollout that has many informed observers worried, weigh in on debates about the UK's illegal air pollution, potential airport expansion, and resource insecurity, and represent the UK at an international summit that plenty of people regard as the most important in the history of human civilisation. No pressure, then.

Each of these policy debates could yet be resolved in favour of a more environmentally sustainable, climate resilient, and technologically competitive economy. But there is little doubt the battle will be intense and there are legitimate fears that if the right wing media continues to position action on climate change as an unjustified cost a Conservative government will throw green policies to the fossil fuel addicted wolves. Will the party focus on a competent programme of cost-effective decarbonisation or a chaotic programme of contradictory policies and climate politicking?

These hard policy choices will be further complicated by three over-arching realities that promise to repeatedly dilute Cameron's best intentions towards the green economy and further undermine investment certainty: Europe, austerity, and the Tory backbenches.

The first two years of the parliament will be dominated by the build-up to an EU referendum and, if the Scottish referendum is anything to go by, the following two years will be dominated by the fallout. Emissions targets, air pollution rules, waste and recycling directives, biodiversity and habitat protections, all face an ambiguous future. The likelihood is the UK will stay in the EU or leave and be forced to keep many of these rules through a trade agreement, but for now uncertainty rules.

Meanwhile, cuts to unprotected departments mean DECC, Defra and related departments such as Transport, Business, and Communities will all face extremely tough decisions over what green initiatives remain and which will be cut. They will all be wary of the backlash that results when cuts to something like flood protection are shown to be ill-conceived.
Finally, every green policy or programme the Conservative government pursues will face vocal opposition from those on its own benches who cling to the idea that anything to do with climate change is a Commie plot. Add in the fact that if Cameron does need additional votes his first port of call is likely to be the DUP and party management becomes as crucial to the Tory green vision as the formation of that vision in the first place. Will the Lib Dems and Labour be responsible enough to work with the Conservative leadership on some of these issues to sideline the few climate sceptic voices in parliament or will they be granted influence that is in complete disproportion to their numbers?

What, if anything, can green businesses do to navigate this uncertainty and deliver the policy victories that will help the low carbon economy build on its recent successes?
As always, more needs to be done to demonstrate that clear majorities of the public support clean technologies and are in favour of decarbonisation. Yesterday may have proven once again that you can form a government with the support of barely a third of voters, but a true One Nation Conservative Party has an obligation to represent the country as a whole on these issues.

Similarly, green businesses need to recognise policy is only part of the story and not get too disheartened if some green policies are shelved. It is a scandal the Conservatives will now scupper a popular, successful and cost-effective industry in the form of the onshore wind energy sector. But the march of clean technologies is a global trend whereby costs are falling and green products are becoming normalised all the time. Divestment, community energy, smart grids, solar cells, these are trends and technologies that continue to go from strength to strength, regardless of the political weather.

Finally, those Conservatives tasked with presenting the party's green policies in recent months have repeatedly declared that their focus is on cost-effective decarbonisation. Green businesses need to take this at face value, reach out to those remaining green Tories (they may seem as rare as a happy badger this morning, but they do exist) and demonstrate how decarbonisation is already being delivered in a cost-effective manner and will only become more cost competitive in a way fossil fuels will not. They could start by pointing out how the Conservatives are missing a trick in failing to take action on energy efficiency much more seriously. The Tory manifesto says they will improve one million homes over the next five years; Labour claimed to have a plan to upgrade 2.5 million homes at negligible extra cost - regardless of the final result, it is worthy of consideration.

Most of all though, green businesses and campaigners need to cling to the hope that the David Cameron who once declared that climate change is one of the most serious challenges the UK faces, who once declared he wanted the UK to be the most energy efficient economy in Europe, who once declared he would lead the greenest government ever, has it in him to tackle the climate challenge that will one day define the history books of this most unpredictable of political eras.