September 29, 2008

Fit for the Future? The Green Standard Verdict

By Stephen Hale

Stephen Hale looks at how the parties have dealt with green issues and asks why they are retreating from the environmental agenda

The party conference season is the one moment in the year when each political party gets to put its message across to the people. It need not be a one-way street; it is our chance to get our messages across to them too.

So the Green Standard coalition, which is made up of nine environmental organisations in the UK, published the Green Standard review at the start of the 2008 conference season.

The report identifies the highs and lows of the parties' performance on climate change and the natural environment over the past 12 months. It concludes that all of the political parties have retreated from the environmental agenda in 2007-08.

Some politicians appear to believe that the economic downturn is a reason to step back from tackling climate change and other environmental issues, but the reverse is true.

Our addiction to oil is a major cause of the current downturn. The only long-term way out is to adopt an ambitious climate change strategy which would involve a radical transformation of energy, transport, land management, housing and economic policy. No party is meeting this challenge effectively.

The Government's approach to climate change has been contradictory and incoherent. It is important that the landmark climate change Bill is strengthened to cut emissions by at least 80 per cent, however John Hutton's failure to rule out new unabated coal power stations has limited our chance of hitting the climate change targets. The planning Bill also threatens to be an environmental disaster but the draft renewables strategy and the draft marine Bill are welcome.

The Conservatives have placed a lower emphasis on the environment in 2007-08. Despite some very positive speeches on the environment, there is no clear plan on how they will achieve their commitments.

David Cameron's speech stating that the environment must be central to our response to the economic downturn and Conservative opposition to new unabated coal-fired power stations deserve credit. But we were alarmed that David Cameron left out climate change and the environment in his statement in May on priorities for a future Conservative government.

The Liberal Democrats' traditional lead on the environment has waned over the past year.

We welcomed Nick Clegg's proposals to make the UK energy independent and carbon neutral by 2050 and the party's review of its policies on the natural environment, but for much of the past year, the Liberal Democrats have not been making the political weather on the environment as they once did.

The report challenges party leaders to use their conference speeches to make Britain "fit for the future" by committing to action in the following key areas: agreeing to deliver 15 per cent of UK energy from appropriate renewable sources by 2020; radical improvements to energy efficiency and valuing; and protecting and enhancing the natural environment. Party leaders should also reject unabated coal power stations and greater capacity at Stansted or Heathrow.

The economic downturn is a reason to act, not an excuse for delay. Environmental issues are not yesterday's problem, but today's imperative for the future. We need action now.

Stephen Hale is the director of Green Alliance

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