This week, David Cameron is due to address global energy ministers as the UK hosts a high profile clean energy summit.
This will be the PM’s first speech on the environment since coming to office. Although it could have come sooner, this is a major opportunity for the PM to show leadership and shore up the government’s commitment on energy and climate change policy, which is fast becoming one of the most divisive issues in the coalition.
The irony is that while there will be much international interest at the conference in ambitious UK government policies such as the Green Investment Bank, energy market reforms which aim to deliver investment in low carbon generation, and the flagship Green Deal home insulation initiative, many of these policies are being weakened by domestic politics.
Some Conservatives, emboldened by the chancellor’s reticence on green issues and keen to pick a fight with the Liberal Democrats, are campaigning to undermine some of the coalition’s most important green policies.
The Prime Minister should make use of his relative silence on environmental issues to date by using the summit as an opportunity to stamp his authority on the government’s green agenda. The PM needs to put an end to the uncertainty created by the government’s cut and run approach to the solar Feed-in Tariff and mixed messages on renewable energy.
The low-carbon market, projected to grow globally at 4 per cent a year for the next five years, could be a huge boost for Britain’s flagging economy, as both Cameron’s deputy and his energy minister have argued.
Though general economic conditions haven’t helped, an implicit lack of commitment to a low carbon economy have done much to squander early business and investor confidence in the coalition’s green credentials. Doosan Power Systems and General Electric are two of the most recent companies to drop plans to invest in the UK.
Soon-to-be published IPPR research will argue that uncertainty is only likely to make the low carbon transition more expensive in the long run, as the private sector puts off investment and places R&D projects on hold. The International Energy Agency show that every delayed $1 of investment in the energy sector before 2020 will cost an additional $4.3 afterwards.
The Green Deal is the latest policy to fall victim to Tory scaremongering. This is a policy that does not need a sustained right-wing attack to hit the rocks. Since households are already reluctant to take up free offers of energy efficiency improvements, it is likely to take more than a low interest loan to create a retrofit revolution.
The decision to dump some of the mandatory proposals is not a fatal blow to the policy, but poor uptake would be. Home improvement fits squarely with David Cameron’s middle England instincts. The PM could do much to inspire a shake-up in British attitudes, whereby insulating your home would become accepted as socially responsible in the way that recycling is.
That an uncontroversial issue like energy efficiency can create tensions within the coalition suggests there are serious challenges ahead for a government that has to make urgent decisions to secure new generation capacity while meeting tough carbon reduction targets.
The days of hugging huskies are over, but with his approval ratings at their lowest levels since he came to office and many voters unclear what he really stands for beyond austerity, now would be a good time for Cameron to rediscover his pre-election passion for the environment. It might help shore up damaging coalition splits in the process too.