26 November 2009: UK Conservatives promise progress

Last night, I went to hear the UK’s shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, give a speech about what a UK Conservative government would do about diplomacy and climate change. This is one of a series of speeches on climate from the Shadow Cabinet this week, which is encouraging. Obviously, they want to get good media coverage in the run up to Copenhagen. However, they also judge that being seen to be strong and progressive on climate will appeal to voters – including Conservative voters, who need to be mobilised. Some commentators had expected party leader David Cameron to lose interest in climate change because of the recession, but this is clearly not going to happen.

I went to a meeting with Cameron in December 2005. This was while I was working for Greenpeace, and he invited all the environmental groups to an event to launch the Quality of Life Policy Group, chaired by John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith (see Quality of Life Challenge). It was just two days after he became party leader. He came into a room of about 20 environmentalists, sat down, gave a short introductory talk, promising great ambition and all without notes (he’s famous for speaking without notes). It was quite impressive, but was this just because he has a good memory and his staff had told him which buttons to push? However, there then was about an hour of discussion, and he clearly knew and cared a great deal about the subject matter: climate change, biodiversity and conservation, and human development. So he was not just good at briefing, but showed genuine commitment.

Hague’s speech was also good. He is one of the more anti-EU members of the Shadow Cabinet, but was quite constructive on this issue – he repeated the Cameron line that the EU should focus more on real global issues like climate change rather than on endless institutional debates (which most people agree with). He said that the EU budget should give more money to the low-carbon transition and less to the Common Agricultural Policy, and that biofuels should only receive subsidy if they really are better for the climate than oil is. On nuclear power and non-proliferation, he said that there should be an internationally-controlled nuclear fuel cycle, to stop countries like Iran using nuclear power to develop bombs.

Hague read his speech and his answers to questions were less strong, which suggests less personal engagement. However, this need not be a major problem – not every member of the Cabinet needs to be closely involved, as long as they do not block things.  His point about preventing nuclear proliferation, which as Foreign Secretary he would be responsible for, was in the discussion.

The person who does need to be committed and ambitious on climate is George Osborne, now the UK shadow chancellor. He has also given a climate speech this week. I have never met him and did not attend this speech, so I cannot really judge how engaged he is. However, the speech (see Conservatives: The Treasury’s fight against climate change) is impressive. Osborne said that the Treasury:

needs to be at the heart of this historic fight against climate change

and that a Conservative government would:

  • Cut central government emissions by 10% within 12 months – in line with the 10:10 campaign.
  • Introduce new green Individual Savings Accounts (which are tax-free).
  • Strengthen the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.
  • End subsidies for fossil fuels through the Export Credit Guarantee Department, which provides government guarantees to companies looking to sell their technology overseas.
  • Consult on Britain’s first green investment bank.

It is slightly worrying that the Conservatives will consult on the green investment bank.  The current Labour government consults endlessly about everything, and we have to hope that a future Conservative government will not do likewise. Osborne’s colleague, Charles Hendry, shadow energy minister, has an excellent line on this – he describes Labour as having “the Jungle Book vultures’ approach to consultation”. However, I have to accept some of the responsibility for this. One of my last decisions at Greenpeace was to launch a judicial review (JR) against the government becoming pro-nuclear (which I then opposed, and not just because I was working for Greenpeace), on the grounds that it had not consulted properly. Greenpeace won that JR, so the government now feels obliged to leave no stone unturned in its consultations. The key thing for ministers and their officials to accept is that nothing is ‘JR-proof’ – non-government organisations will always seek ways to start a JR to stop developments they oppose. Therefore, the question ministers must ask is:

If we’re taken to JR, is there a reasonable chance that we’d win?

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