26 April 2010: Climate event for UK General Election

This morning I attended an event called ‘Ask a Climate Question’ organised by a coalition of environment and development groups. On the panel were:

  • Ed Miliband, Labour.
  • Greg Clark, Conservative.
  • Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat.
  • Darren Johnson, Green Party.

The most striking aspect of the discussion was that, with the exception of nuclear power, there was broad consensus among the four parties. Miliband, Clark and Hughes deal with energy, not transport (although the Liberal Democrats say that they would merge the Department of Energy and the Department of Transport if they won power), so there were no questions about airports – though even here the manifestos are less different than expected (18 April 2010: UK manifestos and climate proposals). There was agreement on the need for:

  • A green investment bank.
  • Energy efficiency work on existing homes.
  • High-speed rail.
  • Carbon capture and storage.

Greg Clark said that he has been told by Conservative leader David Cameron that, if the Conservatives win power, there would definitely be a Bill in the first legislative programme to create the ‘Green Homes Deal’, which would offer all householders a £6,500 loan (more for hard-to-heat homes), to be repaid in instalments less than the reduction in energy bills. Labour and Liberal Democrats have similar proposals, so it looks likely that, whatever the election result, the next government will at last take serious steps to improve the UK’s appalling building stock, so reducing fuel poverty.

One sensible source of funds for organisations, particularly local government, wanting to do more on energy efficiency would be the promised green bank. All three parties support this, though they haven’t yet said that it could lend money for energy efficiency work. Creating the bank will require legislation, so this should certainly also be in the first legislative programme of the new parliament. A new bank will also obviously need money, and it isn’t clear where this will be found. However, it should be a priority for whoever is running the UK.

The panel was asked about money in the context of overseas development. Specifically, they were asked to confirm that money for climate measures would be additional to the 0.7% of GDP which all parties have said they would give for development, and not simply re-badged – money that would have been spent on healthcare or education going instead on clean energy or adaptation. Ed Miliband accepted that some of the fast-track money that the UK has announced since Copenhagen would come from existing development budgets, but said that Labour has put a 10% cap on this, so 90% of the climate funds will be additional. Greg Clark said that a Conservative government would accept this 10% cap, and that discussions of finance should be central to the Cancun climate summit in December. Simon Hughes said that there should be a new UN route for transferring money, since many developing countries do not trust the World Bank or the IMF. Also that money should be raised though an international tax on shipping and aviation fuel, and the ‘Robin Hood’ tax on banks.

The politicians were also asked about ‘localism’ – the desire to give local councils more powers. Ed Miliband agreed that councils should be enabled to play a greater role, but said that there also needed to be a top-down target from central government. Greg Clark pointed out that the UK Climate Change Act, which the Conservatives supported, already sets carbon budgets. He said that an effective way to gain greater local support for wind farms would be to allow local authorities to keep the business rates, which the Conservatives have promised to do, though only for the first six years. Taking business rates away from local government and giving the money to central government has been one of the most centralising acts of any UK government in the last 50 years, and that was done by a Conservative government, so it is welcome that the Conservatives are prepared to repair this damage.

Clark also delivered the best line. Ed Miliband asked to be judged on Labour’s plans. Clark responded:

You’ve been in power for 13 years. It’s a bit late to be asked to be judged on your plans.

This is a fair comment, though Ed Miliband has made significant progress since being appointed Energy and Climate Change Secretary 18 months ago.

Overall, an element of argument was inevitable, this close to election day. However, the degree of agreement was encouraging. Current opinion polls indicate that a hung parliament, with no party having an overall majority, is probable. In which case, politicians must put aside any desire to score political points, and work together to deliver a green bank, a massive increase in energy efficiency work, high-speed rail and CCS.

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