Greenest Government Ever (But Not Just Yet)
Over three months have whizzed by since the installation of the self-styled ‘Greenest Government ever’, but matters environmental are sliding further down the agenda – not necessarily due to a faltering of ministerial commitment, but because of a simple lack of cash.
Take the Environmental Performance Standard (EPS), which would have compelled power companies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas plants. David Cameron had been an enthusiast when in opposition, but it’s not now going to feature in the autumn’s legislative programme in which priority will surely be given to measures that reduce the oft-quoted deficit. So instead, officials will be looking at the wider picture of fossil fuel emissions over what remains of the summer. It seems not everyone is holidaying in August, as further summer deliberation is the name of the game with the Renewable Heat Incentive too. There is speculation that this might not be introduced in April 2011 after all. Ministers at DECC are still keen, but the Treasury is not in a mood to support schemes which, at least initially, will take money out of the public purse.
Although not strictly speaking an environmental body, the Commission for Rural Communities is an independent advocate for affordable rural housing and the rolling-out of broadband. Not for much longer: it is to be scrapped and its functions brought in-house within Defra, where they will have to compete with the myriad other issues in the civil service and ministerial intrays.
Natural England, meanwhile, will potentially lose one third of its workforce. Grants to British Waterways could be withdrawn, and the Environment Agency will have to cut spending on pollution and waste controls.
However, those of us – most people, that is – outside the control rooms of Westminster have to recognise that what we term ‘the environment’ is vital but not urgent in the context of the short timescales involved in reducing public debt quickly, and the general to-ing and fro-ing of parliamentary life. We cannot criticise the Government for reserving its meagre funds for rebalancing the books, job creation schemes (though these seem thin on the ground too, and could be boosted by renewable energy investment – a subject for another debate), not to mention health and social care.
Even the greenest person has to live his or her life in the grey present. The payoff for many environmental measures is some way in the future. If your household possessions are at risk of floating off down the street in a torrent of water this winter, you may have cause to be grateful for the Environment Agency’s ringfenced flood defence spending. This work takes up half of its budget, so it is inevitable that its more specifically ‘environmental’ duties – such as tackling pollution – have to be put off till the economic climate brightens.
A postscript: your blogger will shortly experience a climate of a different kind as he is spending a few months on a voluntary work placement in India. Keep an eye out for an occasional posting – on solar energy or who knows what else – by the autumn-in-Sussex-enjoying SolarUK team.