Green Agenda — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:15 pm on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 2:15 pm, 12th January 2012

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity for today's debate on the Government's green agenda. It seemed to me that 20 months into this Government it would be helpful to have a look at the Government's green agenda and green policies and how they measure up to the Government's own commitment to be, as David Cameron announced on 14 May, "the greenest Government ever".

The Minister will recall my reaction when he announced in an earlier debate:

"My Lords, whether you like it or not, we intend to be the greenest Government ever".-[Hansard, 2/11/10; col. 1576.]

I assured him then that we did like it and would support that approach but we would hold the Government to account should they fall short of achieving their objectives. It is a laudable objective and a benchmark against which the Government can be judged on the progress they are making towards their target, although I think it is disappointing that having made that pledge, which was received with great enthusiasm and hope, the Government did not set up any mechanism to allow for any scrutiny of that pledge.

It is even more disappointing then that the Government abolished the Sustainable Development Commission. I understand, perhaps more acutely than most, that it is not always comfortable for governments to be held to account for their promises, yet perhaps it is more important for this Government as the coalition programme for government was never endorsed by the public. When Ministers make statements such as "the greenest Government ever", it is important that progress against that pledge can be measured.

Many have taken the opportunity to do so. Noble Lords may have seen that the Guardian has a green-o-meter which seeks to track how the coalition is faring on a range of issues, such as climate change, wildlife and conservation, energy efficiency and renewable power. As of October it had judged 10 policies as being green, 13 as not being green with the jury still out on four. It reserved its strongest criticism for the Chancellor's Budgets and Autumn Statement, describing Budget day in March 2011 as a "green catastrophe".

Wildlife and Countryside Link is an umbrella body of 35 wildlife and countryside organisations, representing more than 8 million people and managing more than 690,000 hectares of land. In its document Nature Check: An Analysis of the Government's Natural Environment Commitments it reports a mixed bag of results on the 16 major commitments on the natural environment. It praises the Government on two of their commitments on the international environmental stage but classifies seven as amber (delay and underdelivery) and seven as red (not delivered or delivered poorly).

Probably the most extensive of all the reports looking across Government is that from Friends of the Earth entitled "The Greenest Government Ever: One Year On". In its fairly forensic examination it concludes:

"At this stage, the likelihood of the Coalition Government living up to its 'Greenest Government Ever' pledge is vanishingly remote ... "It is ... unavoidably depressing to see just how rapidly things have gone backwards since May 2010".

The RSPB says:

"If we're honest, Cameron's greenest Government ever feels like it is being unstitched day by day".

Then, following the Government's backward move to review the targets for halving emissions by 2025, the Environmental Audit Committee said:

"It makes business think that David Cameron is not really serious about being the greenest Government ever".

Perhaps most worrying for the Government is the response from the CBI, which has accused the Government of failing to provide the leadership that business needs for green growth. Those changing decisions on feed-in tariffs, the green investment bank and zero carbon homes make business and investors cynical and somewhat nervous about the Government's intentions and commitments.

Despite those criticisms, my sense is that these organisations-their members, investors and the public-really want the Government to succeed in being the greenest Government ever and they want green growth. If we go back to "like it or not", as the noble Lord said previously, we would like to note that, despite some rare successes with which the Government do themselves credit, the record and the omens so far are not too good. However, I hope that the Minister and the Government would be sensitive to such informed criticism-the Minister seems to find it quite amusing-and would want to respond positively to the concerns that are raised. As I say, those organisations want the Government to succeed. I will address just a few of those causes of concern, and my colleagues will raise others. I hope that the Government can find some way of addressing these to bring them back on track on their pledge.

The Green Deal is the Government's flagship policy for energy efficiency, thereby reducing carbon and providing warmer homes. I certainly support this objective, and the Minister has publically acknowledged how constructive we have been. Cold homes are a serious environmental, social and economic problem, and the Government have recognised that. A Save the Children study found that over half of parents on the lowest incomes worry that their children's health will suffer because their home is too cold. They are right to worry. It is estimated that cold homes cost the NHS £145 million every year. The real concern, however, is the detail of the secondary legislation that will make the difference between success and failure. The Minister has been very helpful and we had a short briefing on this yesterday, but I understand that the Government have now delayed the implementation because of the amount of detail that still has to be worked out. Even the Committee on Climate Change has felt the need to send an open letter to the Secretary of State to express its concerns about some of the details of the Green Deal and the energy company obligation. It is right to delay if it is a matter of getting things right to ensure that the Green Deal will work, but can the Minister tell me when he thinks that the first home will have energy measures installed through the Green Deal? How long is that now going to take? Despite our doubts about the details, we welcome it and want it to succeed.

A huge concern is the initial exclusion of the private rented sector, which has many of the least energy efficient and coldest homes. I welcome the statement in May from the Secretary of State, Chris Huhne, in which he said:

"From 2018, the rental of the very worst performing properties-those rated F and G-will be banned through a minimum energy efficiency standard".-[Hansard, Commons, 10/5/2011; col. 1064].

That would be great, but they will not. They will be banned only if they have not had any energy efficiency measures implemented through the Green Deal. If they have had those measures installed but are still, in Chris Huhne's words, one of the "very worst performing properties" they can still be rented out. I do not understand the logic of that. Either a home is one of the very worst performing, producing excess carbon or being cold, which should not be rented out, or it is not. I urge the Government to address this as a matter of urgency. Clearly, the Secretary of State thinks that it is policy, so it should not be too difficult to change.

The announcement of the green investment bank was warmly welcomed by green groups, businesses and investors. The initial announcement of £1 billion was topped up with £3 billion in the March 2011 Budget, but not only does this fall short of the £4 billion to £6 billion estimated by Ernst & Young as needed to make it work, but the money is dependent on the sale of assets which creates uncertainty. As the bank is unable to borrow or raise money until 2015, there has to be an indication from the Government, in actions as well as words, that they remain committed to the project, and that funding will be available to make it effective. The Pew Environment Group reported that the UK has fallen from sixth to 13th in the ranking of countries encouraging green investment with a 70 per cent fall in such investment. That is a dreadful condemnation and a serious retreat from the green investment under Labour.

Let us be clear. We want the green investment bank to succeed, but there is a lot more to be done before that is the case. The Minister is nodding his head; if he could give us some reassurance on that, it would be really welcome. Investment and investor confidence are crucial and are critical to the success of the green investment bank. The Government have to show leadership and commitment to ensure the confidence of investors.

I will examine one area of government policy on renewables that has badly shaken that confidence and offer a way forward. The solar feed-in tariffs were brought in by the Labour Government with huge success. The Chancellor announced a cap on funding in the comprehensive spending review and, in February, announced a review of all solar PV plans over 50 kilowatts. They were then ended. He then swiftly announced further changes in funding. It was not quite as straightforward as that. It seemed to be regular announcements coming out of the department on the changes that were going to be made and consulted on.

I know that the Minister is aware that the industry is reeling from so many significant changes so quickly. The real shock was when the level of the FITs tariff was halved. I hope that, in trying to explain or defend this, the Minister does not fall into the trap of caricaturing the opposition to changes in feed-in tariffs as those who do not want any change at all. I know that he knows that that is not true. He knows that investors, installers and customers understood that changes and cuts were needed. But it is the speed, scale and way in which the changes were made that is so hugely damaging to the industry and its capacity to grow and further reduce costs. We now see something like 20,000 jobs at risk.

I know not know whether the Minister is aware that when he capped the scheme at 50 kilowatts, that is exactly what the energy companies originally lobbied for. Friends of the Earth has taken the Government to court over this. The hearing on the Government's appeal against the court's decision is tomorrow. It would be more helpful if, rather than appealing, the Government could have looked at and discussed it with the industry to see what less drastic action could be taken to ensure that the industry could continue to grow to a point where any government subsidy, if it was needed, was minimal. There is no doubt that the Government's credibility with investors has been severely damaged at a time when the Government's own energy White Paper confirms that £200 billion of investment is needed in our energy system to make it fit for the 21st century. Ernst & Young has stated that the whole investor market has been ripped up by the feed-in tariff review and that revisiting FITs at such an early stage of their existence has undermined investor confidence not only in the UK solar industry but also potentially in the wider UK renewables market.

There is still a way forward on this. The court case is tomorrow, but I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to seek compromise. The Minister will find, if he talks to those who are taking the action, that they are realistic business people who want solar to succeed and understand the Government's concerns over funding.

When the Government announced that their final remaining flagship carbon capture and storage project at Longannet had failed, the dismay felt was tempered by Chris Huhne's announcement, confirmed to me by the Minister, that the £1 billion of government funding would remain and that they expected further promising bids. Chris Huhne said, "Absolutely. No backsliding". But what now? In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor raided the budget. Again, we come back to investor confidence, and whether investors are prepared to trust the Government on their track record. We all understand that the economic situation is difficult, but the constant merry-go-round of policy changes on CCS, FITs, the green investment bank and even on airport expansion is creating the very situation that the Government need to avoid: that of lack of direction and confidence. Investors need the Government to show leadership.

The real opportunity to show leadership and commitment to the greenest Government ever was in the Chancellor's Autumn Statement. The message that has come out is that environmental protection has to be sacrificed for jobs and growth and that businesses should not be burdened with social and environmental goals. This completely undermines positive initiatives such as the green investment bank and the natural environment White Paper.

I genuinely want to give credit where credit is due. The Green Deal could be a success. I hope that it is. We will work with the Government to do our best to ensure that it is. The Government's role at the 2010 Nagoya meeting was widely applauded. The 2020 biodiversity target deserves congratulations. The UK position on whaling and ivory continues to be firm. The Government's own carbon reductions exceeded their target. The Government have continued our commitments on climate change. However, the issues I have mentioned-the downgrading of zero-carbon homes, the scrapping of the Marine Renewables Development Fund, cuts to the Carbon Trust and Energy Savings Trust, badger culling, the proposed forestry sell off, the U-turn on airport expansion at Gatwick and Stansted, bringing forward the previously ruled-out proposals to build an airport in the Thames estuary and the one-third budget cut for Defra in the first spending review-all cause alarm. We all know that these are difficult economic times, but there is a real prize to be won if the Government can stimulate significant investment in green growth to meet their carbon reduction targets and create jobs.

The big question for the Minister today, after the débâcle of FITs and the lack of commitment from HMT to carbon capture and storage, is how the Government will be able to reassure investors and encourage green investment. That is really the response that I am seeking from the Minister today. If he can give reassurance that the Government have such a commitment, want to ensure that they are the greenest Government ever and want to attract genuine and significant investment that can address some of the concerns that have been raised, that would be a welcome response. The Government are right to have the objective of being the greenest Government ever. There is just a little more to do to match action to those words.