Policy paralysis

Bryony_Worthington_PictureBryony Worthington on the Coalition bickering and infighting holding back the UK’s low carbon economy

Next month, the Energy Bill, first announced in last year’s Queen’s speech, may finally get its Second Reading in the Lords. The draft bill was full of wide ranging enabling powers but little detail. It was widely lambasted. Twelve months on and we’re not much wiser as to how the proposed changes will work in practice. 

What is frustrating about energy policy in the UK is the same problem blighting discussions over our future role in Europe: a lack of discipline within the Conservative’s parliamentary party, stemming from David Cameron’s weak leadership. And while Cameron’s back benchers run amok undermining the Coalition Agreement, the LibDems, who have more reason to be rebellious, continue faithfully to tow the line – to their detriment in the polls.

Beyond this policy paralysis the wider world moves on, with an estimated 36 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases have been dumped into the atmosphere over the past year. This month alone, hourly concentrations have at times exceeded 400 parts per million – a key milestone of human stupidity. The last time our atmosphere contained these levels was 3 million years ago, well before mankind began building complex societal and economic structures.  

We know these structures have at their foundation a healthy environment and a relatively stable and benign climate. Nevertheless, our vulnerability to major shifts in the natural world was very clearly illustrated last October when super storm Sandy made landfall in New York State. With many thousands left homeless, still more without power, and an extended drought into and throughout this year, the American people have awoken to the threat of global warming. 

Meanwhile, extraordinarily warm waters are fuelling a tropical storm in the Bay of Bengal that could intensify, further inundating thousands of people in Myanmar and Bangladesh – many of whom are already living in makeshift shelters. 

Tackling climate change may sound too much like self sacrifice for those unable to see beyond the coastline of the British Isles but it need not be, since the green economy is bucking the overall trend, contributing to growth and positively impacting on our balance of trade with countries like China. But because it is very easy to sow seeds of doubt to lobby in favour of the status quo and obstruct new proposals, a small but well-connected group are having a disproportionate impact on policy making in our country. 

Siemens and Gamesa are poised to help develop new supply chain manufacturing facilities to exploit the great economic potential of our unrivalled off-shore wind resource. With no clear signal of which direction the government wishes energy policy to go post-2020, they are reluctant to risk the investment and potential jobs are lost. This is why a decarbonisation target for the electricity sector is so urgently needed. 

Where investors need clarity and leadership, the Coalition is giving them confusion and delay. Where consumers need protection and incentives they risk being saddled with an even less competitive market, based on volatile fossil fuel prices. Britain is not short of the capital, skills or technology to make the transition to a low-carbon economy but Ministers lack political vision. Waiting another two years for the outcome of the next general election is not an option. We must work now on improving the bill, if only to make up for lost time in securing investment and creating jobs in this burgeoning and vital sector.

Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister in the Lords

Published 14th May 2013

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