The new UK economic greenprint, politics and how the media reacted

Two of the big issues the world faces today are how to recover from the economic crunch and how to reverse global warming and deal with climate change. On Wednesday 15 July the UK government addressed both with a major policy statement reshaping its energy policy to reduce carbon emissions. It signals a bold effort to green the economy and create several hundred thousand new jobs. The biggest risk it faces is getting politically entangled – and in this regard, the media reaction was a worry.

Low carbon: time to do it

The UK has to follow not only EU directives on reducing carbon emissions but also its own law that requires an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. In the carbon “budget” this translates to a 34% cut against 1990 levels by 2020. This is a pioneering piece of legislation that sets very standards for UK environmental policy. But as has been pointed out time and again, fine words and bold targets are laudable but now it is time to get a move and actually do it. That is what Wednesday’s policy statement is all about. Highlights include

  • Electricity generation: 40% from low-carbon sources by 2020, 30% from renewable energy sources and 10% from nuclear and “clean coal”;
  • Wind power: 6,000 onshore generators, 3-4,000 offshore;
  • All new coal-fired power stations must be fitted with Carbon Capture & Storage technology;
  • Government will take control of national electricity grid to force these changes through;
  • £600 million to invest in green energy technology;
  • Financial incentives for energy saving in industry, offices and at home;
  • Low carbon transport: new government vehicles will have 40% lower carbon emissions by 2011, 4 years ahead of the EU target date;
  • Low carbon housing: from 2016 all new houses will be zero carbon;
  • 400,000 new green jobs.

This is not simply a positive set of initiatives and the white paper is more than simply a policy – a statement of principle and intention. These highlights are key points within a strategy for achieving the goals established by the Climate Change Act. These specific measures more than meet EU goals and future standards and although that is noteworthy and the government can rightly stress its role in being among the first and most ambitious on the low carbon economic pathway, that is not what is most impressive about them. It is the systematic, all-round nature of the white paper proposals that impresses most. They have been a long time coming – too long for many commentators and critics – but their quality indicates it is realistic to surmise that for perhaps a couple of years there has been a careful, detailed and comprehensive discussion within government to work out how to move from principle to practice.

But…

So far, so good – but there are many reasons to pause, many buts. Fine words, but in moving from principle to practice is the practice feasible? And contrariwise, if practice is feasible, has principle been lost?

Because New Labour has since 1997 been so full of fine words and demanding targets about so many things, there is in many quarters to dismiss anything that the government now says as mere spin and posture. It’s an unfair and often mean-minded reaction that Labour understandably resents but cane only blame itself for. If in its time of weakness it finds it hard to get a fair hearing, that is the reaction it unwittingly courted with its arrogance and often outrageous spin during its years of pomp (cf Iraq to begin with but the charge list is longer than that – it is in fact very, very long).

Leaving to one side that reflexive dismissal of anything the government  says, there are nonetheless serious reasons for wondering about the feasibility of the low-carbon energy policy it announced on Wednesday. I have two questions:

1. Can this government do it? There are two reasons why this is a good question to ask.

1.A First, there will be elections by mid-2010 at the latest and the widespread expectation is that Labour will lose. Things can change, of course, not least if the economy shows enough signs of bouncing back for enough people that they decide to opt for the devil they know. It’s also possible that some of the bolder policy initiatives Labour is unrolling now and may well bring out before the end of the year will keep enough of the left of centre vote loyal that, despite Iraq and bankers’ bonuses, that constituency holds its nose and decides to try and keep out the Conservatives who, after al, also supported the invasion of Iraq and big bonuses for bankers.

That said, most observers still believe the government is on its last legs. So any new policies and strategies launched now risk being non-credible. At best, it might be said they can only have a relatively short life. At worst, the government’s unpopularity and low general credibility must undermine the effectiveness of any initiative it launches, especially one that requires large-scale private investment along with change in the behaviour of (in principle) all individual citizens (see the 2nd question below as well).

1.B There are more detailed grounds for doubt and discussion in the terms of the strategy itself. Can the UK reduce emissions adequately while expanding its major international airport, Heathrow, with a third runway? Can the reduced emissions be achieved with as little pain as the white paper states and can the increase in household energy bills really be kept at bay until 2015 and then held to a mere 6% – an average of about £75-90 per household per year? Is enough money being put into investment in green energy and is a stable enough energy market being established so the big energy producing companies can plan their own strategic investment properly?

Each of these issues and others has doubtless been argued through in the preparation of the white paper. It is right and proper that they are argued through again in public political debate. If the government has done its sums and made its investment calculations and assumptions properly, the public scrutiny will only reinforce the government’s approach. But if flaws and dubious assumptions emerge, then we are back to underlying issue of government credibility.

2. Can any government do it? Of course, the issues under question 1B will be real for the next government, whatever its make-up, as well as the current one. Under David Cameron, the Conservatives have tried to make the environment ‘their’ issue and reacting to the white paper were reduced to the usual opposition complaint that the government has ‘stolen’ their policies. That’s not entirely true but it is not entirely untrue either. I always think that in the sentence, ‘The government has stolen our ideas,’ it would be much more effective as well as dignified politics to replace the word ‘stolen’ by ‘has been persuaded by’ – best said with a smile. But that’s by the by: the main point is that the accusation of policy theft reveals that there is broad consensus in this whole area, and the Liberal Democrats are broadly supportive as well. While a new government might well adjust some of the goals, targets and means, the big picture would probably not be much affected.

And here we come to the key question: do the British people really want it? And at what price do we want it? If household energy prices rise 6% and while the increase for industry is 17%, and if the latter figure means British industry loses out in various export markets, which costs jobs, will we accept that as the price of doing the right thing before others do it? It’s the unsettling nature of these questions that persuade the government to make the price sound as low and painless as possible. Because the policy is only going to get traction in public life and in the economy if majority opinion actively supports it and takes part in implementing it in the home and at the workplace and on the streets.

Leadership and consensus

This is where we require one of two things from our government and preferably both. On the one hand, there has to be political leadership. Opinion polls suggest that most people in Britain believe climate change is real and something must be done about it, and polls also suggest that there is very little willingness to pay a very high price. Furthermore, it is likely that the higher the price, the more urgent and sharp the scrutiny of policy effectiveness will be. As the Financial Times quoted an official from the Confederation of British Industry as saying, the increased cost of green energy for industry is acceptable on condition that carbon cuts are delivered in the most cost-effective way. In these circumstances a government has to set out its stall, win the battle of ideas and deliver the results.

On the other hand (and ideally, at the same time), there is a need for consensus. By this I don’t mean unanimity on every detail, but broad agreement on the main goals, clearly and consistently expressed. And when a government shows signs of metal fatigue like this one, perhaps the need for consensus is all the greater.

Media reaction

And this is what raised the biggest doubts in my mind when the policy came out. I have to interject here that I am on leave at the moment (which is why posts are coming more slowly than is my habit) so am only able to read reports and media coverage on-line. So I am not seeing the actual newspapers from the UK but only their web-sites. With that reservation what struck me was the difference in coverage and what concerns me is that there is a political colour to the difference.

While the Guardian led with the white paper and carried several news, analysis and opinion pieces, the Independent had it as a 2nd level story, though with strong, detailed reporting and the Financial Times had a heavyweight piece of analysis buried way off the front page. Times coverage was also buried – a hard-to-find article that headlined a £249 rise in domestic energy bills. The article seemed to find it hard to understand that this is the government’s calculation of the extra energy costs before accounting for the effects of improved home insulation. All in all, the Times article was a shoddy piece of attack journalism that omitted to report the main points of the white paper. While it’s OK to show the government no respect, the issue deserves more serious treatment than that. Not surprisingly the Mail likewise focused on the rise in household bills, introducing the idea of a “green stealth tax”.

The Telegraph also focused its headline on a 3rd level story on cost, but this time not the money but the invasion of the countryside by wind turbines was the issue. And the meat of the story did do more justice to the actual policy than the Times story managed. Oh, and so far as I could see, the Express didn’t cover the story at all.

The political pattern here is not hard to see. The most enthusiastic coverage from the most liberal papers, the most critical from the right.

Tellingly (and perhaps optimistically) the critical response from the right wing press is not on issues of principle but on the cost – it is a carping, sniping critique.

It may turn out to be an interesting test for David Cameron’s greening of the Conservatives to see how he reacts. In the meantime, however, more effort is clearly still needed to get across the argument that the challenge of climate change requires alteration in much of our default behaviour – in the economy, in the home, in travel, in politics and, I found out today, in the news media.

One response to “The new UK economic greenprint, politics and how the media reacted

  1. It’s been too long without something from you. When are you coming back?

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