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The greenest government ever – or never? | Damian Carrington

Category : Business

David Cameron believes his pledge has been met: the public strongly disagrees. The reality is the foundations are laid, but the PM’s double-speak is preventing them being completed

David Cameron has met his pledge to lead the greenest government ever, the prime minister confidently stated on Thursday. A recent opinion poll found that a mere 2% of the public agreed with him. Neither are right.

The prime minister’s dilemma is that he knows most people want clean energy and cherish nature, hence his detoxification of the Conservative brand by hugging huskies and urging people to “vote blue, go green” before entering No10. But a significant section of Tory supporters despise action on climate change and environmental problems as expensive nonsense.

Nick Clegg represents the first group, and argues “going green has never made so much sense“, while George Osborne represents the second, railing against “saving the planet by putting our country out of business“.

The result was that Cameron’s long-awaited remarks ended up appealing to both sides at once. He warned sternly how expensive renewables are, like Osborne, but was simultaneously “passionate” about the vital importance of growing renewable energy, like Clegg.

This confusing double-speak is the crux, as it means nervous investors turn away from the UK and plough their money into countries whose green committment is not in doubt.

The case for this being the greenest government ever rests on the coalition’s impressive array of bold, if imperfect, policies. A green investment bank (that can’t borrow), the huge green deal energy efficiency scheme (which risks low take-up), major reform of the energy market (which is too skewed to nuclear power) and the world’s first scheme for low-carbon heating (delayed for homeowners).

But hundreds of billions of pounds of investment are needed to replace the nation’s dirty and ageing infrastructure with clean, sustainable power plants, homes and cars, fit for the 21st century. And the companies being asked to stump up need political certainty.

The case against this being the greenest government ever is this missing political certainty. One senior energy executive told me Osborne’s remarks drove his CEO to ask: “Does this mean we should not be investing in renewables in the UK?”

The CBI offered doubled-edged praise for Cameron’s attempt to address the issue: “It will help to repair investor confidence following recent policy uncertainty”. Virtually all other business and green groups slated it.

The prime minister’s cause was not helped by a baffling, last-minute downgrading of his words from a “major keynote speech” to seven minutes of introductory “remarks” at a clean energy summit. Before the general election he couldn’t stop talking green. After, we had to wait two years for him to break his green silence and if this was a “major” intervention, as one green quipped, I’d hate to see a minor one.

Even more baffling is this. If there is a single thing Cameron, Clegg and Osborne all crave more than anything else it is economic growth. Yet while the UK double-dips into recession, the green economy is expanding at 4% a year and already employs more people than teaching. But the prime minister’s failure to sing its praises with full voice and at every opportunity is stunting those precious green shoots.

This government has put the foundations in place to be the greenest ever, but while Cameron puts the interests of the Tory fringe ahead of the interests of the nation, it will be the greenest government never.

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