David Cameron appointed several new ministers last week who are suspected of being weak on climate change and green issues. These appointments demonstrate that anxieties from those on the right of the Tory party about losing seats at the next election take precedence in his mind over his previously stated aim of creating “the greenest government ever”.
The appointments came in a week which saw stalemate amongst political leaders at U.N. talks on tackling climate change, that could secure us on the road to at least a 3°C rise in average temperatures, disastrous consequences.
This indicates once again that politicians are unable to take the radical action required of them when faced by a threat of this magnitude, but which operates over a longer term than the next election.
We are seeing a similar paralysis in American politics, although President Obama’s announcement this week of strong support for combined heat and power, or cogeneration, is a step very much in the right direction. This alone could save as many greenhouse gas emissions by means of energy efficiency as the whole of Europe’s solar electric installations put together: a staggering 40 GW.
The position of politicians is all the more startling when contrasted with the attitude of business. As we also reported this week, the cleantech sector is facing growth and prospects far above that expected by business on average around the world.
We also know that this sector accounts for one third of the growth occurring in this country.
And yet our Chancellor, since taking office, has not met with one single representative of this sector, whilst seeing many times representatives from Shell and other fossil fuel-extracting companies.
This is an ideological position completely at odds with the evidence.
It is a position apparently held by the Owen Paterson, the new Secretary of State for the Environment at Defra. When asked by a certain newspaper this week whether he was a climate change sceptic or not, he issued the following statement:
“Defra is responsible for a range of issues affecting the environment and the rural economy. One of these issues is the impact of climate change and the Secretary of State is committed to exploring and developing the response required by Government, business and communities.”
It has been documented that this man is against regulation and wind farms as “clearly a massive waste of consumers’ money“. He has also, according to the Conservative Blog, asked the Cabinet to “end of all energy subsidies and fast-track the exploitation of shale gas”.
As we reported on Friday, a major new report, the most thorough yet, of the dangers of shale gas extraction and of the regulations covering it, called for far more regulation and research. It documents eight high risks, and observes that fugitive greenhouse gas emissions from ‘fracking’ can cause the technology to be more harmful than coal extraction.
In this country, the technology is regulated by the Environment Agency. The man now in charge of this Agency is Owen Paterson. He is both in favour of shale gas and against regulation.
The question is, will he therefore act to lighten regulations to permit fracking to go ahead in the UK?
Laura Sandys, Tory MP for South Thanet, has complained that “Planning applications for shale gas, which I have had in my area, make onshore wind farms look like a walk in the park”.
So is to make it easier to exploit the UK’s shale gas reserves why Owen Paterson was appointed to post?
Regarding shale gas, Owen Paterson is not alone. This week in Parliament, Tim Yeo, head of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, argued in favour also of “exploiting our shale gas reserves”. The Committee has already argued in favour of it.
At least the new Minister replacing Charles Hendry at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, John Hayes, recognises the importance of climate change.
He admitted this week that he is on “a steep learning curve” and catching up by reading the Select Committee’s reports, but stated in Parliament that “the Climate Change Act 2008 committed the UK to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050. European legislation commits the UK to producing 20% of its energy from renewables. Those are most ambitious goals.”
Sensibly, he spoke of the need to provide certainty to those in, or considering investing in, the cleantech sector. This is hugely encouraging.
He also spoke about reducing demand for energy, another encouraging sign. He promised that his department’s Energy Efficiency Deployment Office will publish the Government’s energy efficiency strategy before the end of the year.
Owen Paterson’s department is also responsible for waste. I wouldn’t be surprised if we will also see the fast tracking of permits for more energy-from-waste incinerators, overriding the concerns of those living near to them.
The fact remains that whoever is in a ministerial position, the Government is committed to the requirements of the Climate Change Act. It is also committed to the agreements made at the beginning of the Coalition. Whatever the beliefs of individual ministers, they have, one hopes, to adhere to this.
Ideology is the enemy of the environment, as we see with the Republican Party in America at the moment. Scientific evidence, and the evidence of the financial benefits of working in the cleantech sector, are its friends.