2011-05-09 08:00:31A lighter shade of green in the UK?
John Hartz
John Hartz

Is this an accurate portrayal of what's happening in the UK?

A lighter shade of green

The government, unlike voters, remains keen on environmentalism. But it knows not to shout about it

The Economist, May 5th 2011 | from the print edition

BRITISH environmentalists were in their political pomp in the middle of the past decade. Prosperity allowed voters to worry about an issue they used to regard as esoteric: Ipsos MORI polls found 19% of the public citing pollution as a serious issue facing the country in early 2007. Then in opposition, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, sought to capture the Zeitgeist, and fix his party’s “uncaring” image, by visiting melting glaciers and changing the Tory logo from a torch to a tree.

The subsequent recession left environmentalism looking like an unaffordable luxury. Since 2008 the share of voters who think it a big issue has fallen to around 4%. Politicians who once competed to out-green each other now stick to bread-and-butter subjects such as the economy and public services, for fear of seeming out-of-touch. “Vote Blue, Go Green” was the Conservative slogan for the 2006 local elections; Mr Cameron has not revived the theme for this year’s polling, which was taking place as we  went to press.

But whereas the political salience of greenery has wilted, the government’s environmental policies are holding up. Although this year’s budget disappointed greens by cutting petrol duties, it also included the creation of a green investment bank to finance carbon-free energy projects. The coalition government has also cancelled plans it inherited to expand Heathrow airport in London, braving the ire of big business. It wants to reduce short-haul flights by building more high-speed railways. It is also striving to cut carbon-dioxide emissions across the public sector.

The government’s commitment to greenery is set to face a further test. A law passed by its Labour predecessor obliges it, by the end of June, to set a limit on Britain’s total emissions of carbon dioxide in the period 2023-27 (limits until then have already been set). Environmentalists want ministers to accept the limit recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, an independent advisory body, but fear the government will choose a laxer one.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is certainly more environmentally conscious than a purely Tory government would have been. George Osborne, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer and author of the fuel-tax cut, is reluctant to impose further burdens on a private sector that he is counting on to deliver economic growth. But there are also some quite ardent environmentalists, such as Chris Huhne, the increasingly assertive Lib Dem energy secretary. Mr Cameron’s instincts are somewhere in the middle.

The prime minister is more aware than most of the political irrelevance of environmentalism. As leader of the opposition, he learned the hard way. Among the “modernisers” who wanted to remake the Tory brand, there was always a divide between those who thought voters disliked the party because of its supposed disdain for “soft” issues such as the environment and gay rights, and those who insisted that the real problem was the party’s perceived indifference to public services and poverty.

The former camp, the so-called “Soho modernisers”, set the tone of Mr Cameron’s early years as Tory leader, hence his glacier tour and all that conspicuous cycling. The latter group—some of whom call themselves “Easterhouse modernisers”, after a Glasgow housing estate visited by Iain Duncan Smith, the last but one Tory leader—argue that this contributed in two ways to the Tories’ failure to win last year’s general election outright.

First, it made the already privileged, metropolitan Tory leadership seem even further removed from the concerns of ordinary people. Although 19% of voters may have been worried about the environment in 2007, more were thinking about crime, health services and so on. After five years of modernisation, the party went into the last election still doubted over its commitment to the poor and social justice. Second, dwelling on soft issues left the Tories unprepared for the return of hard economic questions brought about by the financial crisis, a subject on which they rarely sounded convincing.

The government knows that making too much of its environmentalism risks alienating squeezed voters. Even Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader and former energy secretary, who is closer to the green movement than perhaps any other senior politician, has not made the environment a big theme. The worry for greens is that the lack of political utility in their cause will ultimately prompt government to water down environmental policy itself. If so, those years before the crash will not be remembered as the flowering of the environmental movement, but as its peak.



2011-05-09 22:23:21
Paul D


It is quite accurate, although I think some people believe the high speed rail link if designed to divert air traffic from Heathrow to the midlands.

The Treasury, nearly always overrides many green policies. Personally I think if green groups want some real action in the UK, then they need to target the Treasury.

I tend to be politically neutral. I don't think it should be a surprise that the right wing party in the UK should turn out to be less green than was expected. However when compared to the US I think UK politicians generally accept AGW and the need for green policy.

This may be in part due to a massive conservation movement in the UK, which can sometimes conflict with green issues but can also be in sympathy. The fact that the UK is densely populated and has a long archeological history, means that protection of green spaces is an issue for both the left and right.

Conservation in the UK ranges from the protection of historic buildings, which often is linked to green spaces, to protection of birds (RSPB) and protection of woodlands. You don't have to be a lefty to appreciate the need to protect what we have, but also unfortunately, exploit natural energy sources which may have a aesthetic impact on the landscape that you want to protect.

2011-05-09 22:37:55
Paul D


BTW I also have very little confidence in the left politics in the UK either.
I have great doubts wheher 'social justice' is particularly compatible green politics. In the UK many 'greens' are ex-socialists and anti-nuclear weapons campaigners (CND). Our one green MP was a CND campaigner in the past.

Personally I think things need to move on from that baggage, but I don't see that happening soon.
I still 'work' with them to organise local green events though.

2011-05-10 16:33:11
Paul D


BTW, the comments I made about the Treasury have just been vindicated by news on the BBC today.
The governments Climate Change Commitee has stated or re-stated the need to cut emissions further and the Treasury, Transport Departments and Business Departments are opposing it.

As I said previously, UK environmentalists need to start a campaign directly against the Treasury. It's probably the last piece of government that is putting up significant resistance.


2011-05-10 21:44:18
Mark Richardson

The government has done ok so far.


They're going to tone back the 'feed in tariff', an immense subsidy for solar power. Green groups are whinging, but in the long run this will be great. The FIT for solar is ridiculous: 10 times the maximum possible subsidy for onshore wind for a technology which will never be very important in the UK.

They're holding firm on nuclear which, once again, the green groups are incensed about, but it means we'll be able to switch off coal plants decades sooner than we would if we went renewables. Oh, and they're still holding fast on no coal without CCS.


Also, they've continued to support big expansion in wind and some biomass burning and are introducing the renewable heat incentive (a subsidy for wood boilers and heat pumps, basically) plus working on legislation to improve efficiency of old housing stock and pushing for wind and ocean energy development.



Could be doing better. For a right wing government that has a lot of climate denier support in a very tough economic climate they're actually doing pretty well IMO.

2011-05-15 19:37:30
Paul D


Well it looks like the Treasury lost the battle:


That is the first time I have seen the Treasury lose an argument. The normal Treasury response is 'computer says no'.

Maybe we are see some real change at last.

2011-05-15 19:43:20


All very strange reading the above after this headline from the BBC.  I'm far more cynical about all mainstream goverments but particularily one which is dominated by Conservatives!  We also need to distinguish between genuine Green policies and ones inspired by a NIMBY attitude!

Coalition 'losing way' on green policies - campaigners

The heads of 15 green campaign groups have written to the prime minister warning the government is in danger of losing its way on environmental policy.

The letter says the coalition should promote a green economy with "urgency and resolve" if it is to follow its vow to be the "greenest government ever"......

The campaigners' plea comes after reports of a split in the cabinet over whether to accept the recommendations amid concerns that meeting the goal could impact on economic growth.

Labour has seized on the apparent disagreement, saying it left Mr Cameron's environmental commitment "in shreds".

Last week, a review funded by Friends of the Earth suggested there had been little or no progress in 55 government policies on the environment

2011-05-15 20:22:37
Paul D


The Treasury have never taken the idea of a 'green economy' seriously. Which is why it is good to see some progress in defeating their entrenched attitude. It doesn't really have anything to do with party politics. They were the same when Labour was in power.

2011-05-16 17:32:07
Paul D


The news this morning is that the business/economics side of government managed to get a clause in that allows a review if EU countries change their targets.

2011-05-16 20:02:51
Paul D


Latest BBC report: