Autumn conference round-up: What did the main parties say about the green economy?
With the curtains now drawn on the 2017 autumn party conference season, edie has provided a full round-up of the major green-related highlights from the party conventions over the past three weeks.
The conference season concluded in rather peculiar circumstances on Wednesday as a jaded PM delivered one of the most acutely calamitous political speeches in recent memory. In what was branded a golden opportunity to reassert her authority over the party after a disastrous general election that saw her party lose MPs, a wheezing Theresa May spluttered her way through her keynote address amid a comical sequence of pranks and falling sign letters.
And while at the time of writing Ms May is yet to have been handed a real P45, it seems manifestly clear that a certain Boris Johnson and his loyal rabble of Tory Brexiteers will be licking their lips as rumours surface of a Conservative leadership election.
The pursuit of the so-called “British dream” was the message that the PM had attempted to convey to an underwhelmed audience in Manchester earlier this week. A pledged cap on energy bills and £2bn investment in affordable housing were offered as an attempt to bring ordinary working people back from the grips of an increasingly popular Jeremy Corbyn and his rejuvenated Labour Party.
No specific mention was made to resource efficiency or the low-carbon agenda in May’s speech. But amid a backdrop of all-time high levels of renewable generation and a Government consultation on the roll out of plastic bottle return scheme, it can be safe to assume that the green economy will play a crucial role in the pursuit of the “British dream”.
With the last of the Tory party faithful checked out from their Manchester B&Bs and Westminster politicians set to return to the bread and butter of verbal haranguing in the Commons this week, edie has provided a full round-up off all the key green-related speeches and announcements from the respective Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem conferences over the past three weeks.
Conference season began in earnest three weeks ago as the Liberal Democrat Party descended on the coastal resort town of Bournemouth, battered and bruised after a weak election campaign centred around opposition to Brexit only saw them pick up a meagre four seats from the catastrophic 2015 election.
During his keynote speech, newly appointed Lib Dem leader Vince Cable spoke of the need for more investment, innovation and long-term capital to nurture the green economy. Cable, who praised former energy secretary Ed Davey for his role in the creation of the Green Investment Bank in the coalition era, described the sale of the Bank to the “asset-stripping” investment bank Macquarie as “absolutely galling”.
He also expressed major disappointment at other major green-related Tory policies such as the ditched Green Deal, delays to the Swansea tidal lagoon, the closure of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) competition and the Heathrow expansion U-turn. Warning that Conservatives were treating environmental protections as “green crap” and that the most “fervent apostles” of Brexit are climate change deniers, Cable reassured Lib Dem members that his party would always fight for the green agenda.
To amplify this point, the Lib Dems urged Ministers to bring forward the UK's climate targets by a decade, outlining a vision for a “carbon-free” Britain by 2050. A motion was passed in the first 48 hours of the Lib Dem conference proposing this early target, which the Party claimed would be met by investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, low-carbon transport and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Concurrently, Lynne Featherstone launched a report claiming that the country is on course to miss the Paris Agreement objectives. The study mapped out a pathway to get the country back on track, with funding in solar, onshore wind and tidal power, and the development of smart grids and energy storage all proposed as potential methods to enhance the UK’s low-carbon strategy. These devices could be employed at the expense of nuclear energy, of which there are “legitimate concerns” around cost and ability to deliver projected capacity, Featherstone suggested.
A week later, and a hundred miles along the south coast in Brighton, the Labour masses were in celebratory mood after their Party’s surprisingly strong performance in the June election. Echoes of the now-famous chant hailing the name of their Party leader reverberated around the Conference room walls as scarves were held aloft in a scene more fitting of a football match than a major political event.
In a 75-minute speech used to declare that Labour is “ready for Government” and prepared to take over Brexit negotiations take over Brexit negotiations from the “bungling” Tories, Corbyn made a clear reference to the sustainability agenda, vowing to take action on climate change and spur investment in green industries.
He took a swipe at President Trump’s “alarming” threats to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. The environmental crisis demands a common global response, Corbyn said. He spoke of the need to be a “candid friend” to the US, insisting that “the values we share are not served by building walls, banning immigrants on the basis of religion, polluting the planet, or pandering to racism”.
Meanwhile, Corbyn’s trusted ally and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell made a bold pledge that Labour would ensure the UK becomes a “world leader” in the low-carbon transition. In contrast to the Government’s “dithering” approach to boosting the green economy, which McDonnell pointed out had resulted in “slashed” funding for renewables, the Labour Party would create a publicly-owned energy supply based on alternative energy sources. McDonnell specifically gave his backing to building the Swansea tidal lagoon project. He also promised to give the Tories “the political battle of the lives” if environmental rights were watered down following the UK’s departure from the EU.
In the immediate build-up to the Conservative Party Conference, right wing think tank Bright Blue called on the Tories to champion environmental policies in order to woo younger votes at the next election. This came after a new survey suggested that climate change is the highest issue that 18-28-year-olds want senior politicians to discuss more. Bright Blue senior research fellow Sam Hall claimed that the Party could rectify its “deeply concerning” bad image among under 40s by championing policies such as renewables generation and providing incentives for people to install insulation in their homes.
Whether this call will be heeded by Cabinet Ministers remains to seen, although it does seem certain that encouraging steps are being taken to address some of the issues raised by Bright Blue. Indeed, midway through the Conference, Defra Secretary Michael Gove confirmed he would work with businesses to see how a drinks container deposit return scheme could work in England. Gove expressed optimism that the scheme would build on the progress made by the 5p carrier bag charge, which seen usage fall by 83% and more than £95m raised in charitable causes.
Gove also used his speech to address the “once in a lifetime opportunity” to deliver a green Brexit. He pledged that the Government would reform the “economically and environmentally disastrous” EU Fisheries Policy along with the Common Agricultural Policy, which he said had “channelled hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money to the already wealthy, simply because of the amount of land they have”. Gove described the Conservatives as “the first, and still the most ambitious green party in this country”.
The Industrial Strategy was a central focus of Business Secretary Greg Clark’s speech, specifically the successes which it has delivered to date, such as the lowest ever price of offshore wind. Clark said that the UK would become the “go-to place for new battery technology”, which would be achieved through the Faraday Challenge. He cited examples of battery-powered vehicles, which would be developed in the UK. Clark suggested that the Government is leading the way on the energy transition, pointing to support for new nuclear and the smart meter rollout, as well as the fact that the UK is already a world leader in offshore wind power. No mention was made about the release date of the anticipated Clean Growth Plan, although speculation is rife that the document could be published as early as next week.
Lastly, Theresa May’s ill-fated speech included calls to “crack global warming” with clean technology and green finance. She heralded the transition decarbonisation transition as a shift as big as the move from the age of steam to the age of oil. The UK would continue to be a “world leader” in offshore wind power, she said, while the upcoming Industrial Strategy would place at its core funding for new battery technologies for EVs and renewable energy, technologies the UK would soon be exporting around the world.