Tories move to make up lost ground on environment

The Conservative party has been almost dormant on the environment for many years - but a high-profile speech by leader Michael Howard signals a serious attempt to re-engage with the issue. In an interview with ENDS, shadow environment minister Tim Yeo signed up to matching Labour's target to cut CO2 emissions by 20% by 2010, while Mr Howard put forward eye-catching initiatives such as a phase-out of HFCs and reduced stamp duty on energy-efficient homes. Elsewhere, however, the party has yet to set out distinctive policies - and it is struggling to develop a coherent approach on business energy use, transport, renewable energy and green taxation.

Back in 1996, a new party leader set out his pre-election stall on the environment before a seminar hosted by consultants ERM.

The young Tony Blair pledged international leadership and the integration of environmental considerations into decision-making (ENDS Report 253, p 3). Otherwise, the speech was notable for his reluctance to endorse Labour's carefully thought-out policy document on the environment, adopted just before he took over the leadership.

Opportunism or conversion?
Eight years on, and with a general election looming once more, Conservative leader Michael Howard appeared before another ERM/Green Alliance seminar to make the case for "new leadership in the way we manage our environment".

In contrast to Mr Blair, Mr Howard came to the meeting with a blank canvas. Since losing office in 1997, the Tories have made only sporadic contributions to the environmental debate - few of them progressive.

Tim Yeo, shadow minister for transport and environment, accepts that "the environment didn't receive as much attention as it merited in part of our opposition period." Part of the reason, he admits, is that the Government "did quite well" when it first came to office - for example in its negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol.

Now, however, Mr Yeo says his leader's speech "starts off a new process which is designed to keep this very high up the political agenda." Consultations and detailed position statements will follow, with policies for "greener transport" heading the queue.

One motive is that Labour is looking vulnerable on the environment, with shaky progress against many key targets. The Conservatives are also being squeezed by the Liberal Democrats, which in the past have cornered much of the green vote.

So is the new-found interest in the environment an example of Tory opportunism? Mr Yeo insists that both he and Mr Howard share a deep interest in the environment - and points out that both served as Ministers in the former Department of the Environment.

Mr Yeo was a junior environment minister for nine months, before being forced to resign in 1994. Mr Howard, a junior DoE minister for water and planning in the late 1980s, served as Environment Secretary for a year after the 1992 election - a period dominated by the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Bashing Blair on climate
The main focus of Mr Howard's speech was climate change, seen as "one of mankind's greatest challenges". Mr Howard argued that "the international effort on climate change desperately needs renewed leadership" - and accused Mr Blair of "squandering" the opportunity to bring the USA back into the fold.

Mr Howard recalled how in a visit to Washington in 1992, he had persuaded President George Bush senior "not just to attend [the Rio Earth Summit], but to sign up to the climate change convention, the forerunner of Kyoto."

Influencing the current Bush administration may be a rather more daunting task. Indeed, in August the White House froze out Mr Howard because of his mildly critical comments about aspects of the Iraq conflict.

Nevertheless, the speech was a bold attempt to park Tory tanks on Mr Blair's lawn. The very next day, the Prime Minister set out to reassert his own claim to global leadership on the issue (see pp 4-5).

Mr Howard's trump card is Labour's poor progress in reducing emissions at home. He points out that the UK is on course to meet its Kyoto obligations "largely...because of the Conservative-led 'dash for gas' in the 1990s."

The Tory leader claimed that "CO2 emissions have actually risen" under Labour (in fact, emissions in 2003 were marginally lower than in 1997). Mr Blair "has set ambitious long-term targets for CO2emission reductions but few people outside government believe that there is a coherent plan for achieving them."

Of course, the key question is what a Tory Government would do differently. So far, at least, the answer appears to be not that much.

Earlier drafts of Mr Howard's speech endorsed the Government's aim of cutting the UK's CO2emissions by 60% by 2050 - but the final version did not. When pressed, Mr Howard said he "would love to achieve [the target], if once in Government I am convinced it's capable of being met."

Mr Yeo later told ENDS that the Conservatives "fully support" the Government's target to reduce CO2emissions by 20% between 1990 and 2010. Until now, party spokesmen have tended to stick to the much less demanding Kyoto target. Mr Yeo also expressed support for the Government's long-term target for 2050.

"We'd be happy to have a bipartisan approach to this, it's a very important subject," Mr Yeo said. "But you can't do that unless there's a recognition from the Government that they are not on course to hit their own targets."

Devils in the detail
Mr Howard's speech was short on detailed policies. Two specific measures were proposed:

  • Phase-out of HFCs: Mr Howard said that these powerful greenhouse gases account for 2% of the UK's global warming impact, and that this is set to double by the end of the decade. He pointed to companies such as Unilever, Coca-Cola and Toyota which "recognise that HFCs are not the way of the future."

    The Tory leader announced a commitment to phasing out the use of HFCs between 2008 and 2014, and promised to "work with our European partners" to achieve this. The proposal goes considerably beyond existing EU moves to curb the use of HFCs and other fluorinated gases (ENDS Report 342, pp 58-59).

  • Home energy efficiency: Mr Howard called for "an urgent refocusing on the benefits of greater energy efficiency". He backed the use of the tax system to change homeowners' attitudes - and said that "only radical measures will ensure that we make real progress".

The Tories' main initiative is a plan to consult on a reduced rate of stamp duty for houses which meet a specific energy efficiency target. Mr Howard suggested that the duty could be reduced at the point of purchase, or that the new homeowner could claim a rebate once they have made the improvements. Mr Yeo suggested that the approach could also be extended to council taxes.

Andrew Warren, director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, said the move "is very good stuff indeed. There is now no reason why the present Government, which has been consulting on fiscal measures for some time, should not now go ahead with this."

Mr Howard also mooted simplifying the building regulations on energy efficiency, and promised to "consult on the most practical timetable to achieve zero emissions from new houses." Warm words, but no firm policies, were offered for the microgeneration and combined heat and power (CHP) lobbies.

What about industry?
Mr Howard's speech said remarkably little about business energy use. He promised that "the promotion of carbon trading will be a major objective for the next Conservative government" - but warned that it "must be rigorously policed and must be built on a level playing field".

In response to questions, Mr Howard said that the "climate change levy doesn't work very well, and particularly discriminates against some sectors of UK industry. We'd look at other ways of achieving the same objective." Mr Yeo described the levy as "a very blunt instrument...Even a carbon tax is probably more effective."

Tory policy appears not to have evolved since the last election, when the party pledged to scrap the levy in favour of emissions trading.

The problem is that the EU emissions trading scheme will cover just 1,000 installations in the UK - and even this has proved to be a hefty undertaking. Scrapping the levy, and the associated framework of climate change agreements, could leave no policies in place to tackle emissions from much of British industry. Moreover, it would place a question mark over the Carbon Trust, which is currently funded from levy receipts.

"Conceptually, once you've got a robust system that covers the top slice it shouldn't be impossible to extend it down to smaller businesses over a period of time," Mr Yeo said. "But I'm essentially pragmatic about this. If it looked as though it would take a very long time for a trading system to be extended, we'd have to consider whether other measures would be needed."

Mr Yeo also expressed concerns over the progress in getting the EU scheme off the ground, and in ensuring that Member States come forward with robust allocation plans. He argued that auctioning of allowances - an option opposed by industry because of the need to pay up-front for emission rights - would be "more environmentally effective and would produce a better market".

The Conservatives' bid for the high ground on climate change sits awkwardly with earlier statements on the EU trading scheme. The party has previously attacked the Government for going beyond the Kyoto target in its allocation plan, and raised fears over impacts on industrial competitiveness (ENDS Report 350, pp 43-44).

Nuclear and renewables
For several years, public debate on energy policy has circled around two key issues: the tension between security of supply and climate change targets, and the scope for nuclear power and renewables to fill the gap. In recent months, the nuclear lobby has been making the running.

Advance spin suggested that Mr Howard would use his speech to set out a positive role for new nuclear build. On the day he steered well away from the issue.

In response to questions, the Tory leader said that "nuclear power is expensive and there are still questions to be answered about how you deal with the waste. We need to make a thorough-going assessment of how we ensure secure energy supplies for the UK...Realistically, this can only be done once we are in Government."

On renewables, the Tories run the risk of having their cake and eating it. This summer, Mr Howard and Mr Yeo allied themselves with the increasingly vocal lobby against onshore wind farms. At the same time, the party also pledged that it would retain the renewables obligation - a mechanism which is stimulating rapid growth in wind power but few other technologies (ENDS Report 354, p 16).

In his latest speech, Mr Howard attacked new planning guidance for renewables which has "shifted power away from local communities and put it in the hands of developers and politicians...We believe that communities must be won over, not walked over."

Mr Howard accused the Government of neglecting offshore wind, biomass and "the emerging technologies of solar, wave and tidal power". The Tories are consulting on ways to reform the obligation to bridge the "valley of death", the gap between grant aid and the ongoing support provided via the obligation.

Mr Yeo later told ENDS that the Tories "don't want to destabilise the market" under the obligation - but suggested that they may seek to raise the "buy-out" price to ensure that it supports technologies which are currently more expensive.

"There is a dishonesty in the Government's position when they say they want secure sources of energy and to achieve green targets - all with energy prices that are historically extremely low," Mr Yeo said. "I think we have to explain to consumers that prices may have to rise." These comments sit awkwardly with the Conservatives' worries about the impact of emissions trading on competitiveness.

Pile-up on transport policy
The other key issue in climate policy is the impact of transport. Mr Howard claimed that "Labour's policy on sustainable transport is now a jumble of contradictions". There is much justification for the comment - but the Tories' stance appears to be even more confused.

Even before the fuel protests of 2000, the Conservatives were keen to be seen as "the party of the motorist". Since then, the party has opposed the London congestion charge and produced policy statements in favour of building new roads, raising speed limits, and reducing emphasis on traffic calming measures and speed cameras.

A 2003 Conservative pamphlet on transport accused the Government of "attempting to distort choice by increasing the burden of taxation on motor travel". The pamphlet attacked the "false assumption that car travel is uniquely damaging to the environment" - and suggested that future cuts in CO2emissions should come from industry, homes and the energy supply industry rather than transport.

Mr Howard's speech offered few specifics to deal with transport emissions. He saw "exciting prospects" in advanced engine and fuel technologies - but offered only general comments on the potential to use the tax system and EU fuel efficiency standards to help bring them forward. The most concrete measure was that "every car purchased by a government department will be the most fuel efficient or best alternative fuel car available."

Mr Yeo reinforced the case, seeing "considerable potential" to introduce greater fiscal incentives to buy greener vehicles and fuels. He singled out a "bigger tax break" for biofuels as "essential". However, the Tories show no appetite for managing demand - or for addressing the fact that motoring costs have remained broadly static in real terms while other transport modes have become much more costly.

On aviation, Mr Howard pledged that the Tories will not "duck, as this Government has done, the challenge." However, he offered merely to include aviation in EU and global emissions trading schemes - exactly the policy being pursued by Labour.

In rhetoric almost identical to that of Labour transport Ministers, Mr Howard said "I don't think you can stop people flying...It's not the job of Government to take away that freedom." Once again, the issue of falling fares and relative pricing between transport modes appears too thorny for politicians to address.

Mr Yeo went further, describing the Government's policy on aviation as "completely unsustainable". He expressed support for an international aviation fuel tax, with more immediate action to replace air passenger duty for domestic flights with an emissions charge.

Integrating the environment?
Inconsistent signals on transport raise serious questions about the degree to which the environment is integrated into thinking across the Tory party. This concern also rears its head over issues such as taxation, cost-cutting in Whitehall, deregulation and the European Union.

In the 1990s, the Conservatives led the way in the use of green taxation introducing key initiatives such as the landfill tax. Now, however, their approach has become entangled with attacks on Labour's "stealth taxes" and "big Government".

Earlier this year, Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin said that he saw tax as "an evil necessity" - whereas Gordon Brown sees it "as a glorious instrument of big government, a means of improving our society and our economy". Mr Letwin's rhetoric appears to undermine the idea of green taxes - shifting taxation from "goods" such as employment to "bads" such as pollution. Indeed, his main examples of "complicated" taxes were the climate change levy and the aggregates tax.

The Conservatives also hope to achieve swingeing cuts across Whitehall, based on work by the so-called James Committee. One of the first targets was the Environment Department (DEFRA), where annual savings of £477 million were identified. One of the main casualties would be the Environment Agency's environmental protection work, which would lose up to 1,280 jobs (ENDS Report 355, p 6).

The Agency and other observers have cast doubt over the validity of the James Committee's figures. Mr Yeo declined to be drawn on the basis for the Committee's conclusions - but appeared to distance himself from them.

"There's no commitment to implementing these recommendations," Mr Yeo told ENDS. "I'd be surprised if there is not scope for some efficiency savings but whether those are of the order that the James Committee suggested I don't yet know. It isn't a priority for me - it's much more important to get our policy indicators clear so people know exactly what we stand for."

Other tensions are likely to flow from the Conservatives' strong commitment to deregulation - recently boosted by the creation of a dedicated shadow cabinet post held by leading right-winger John Redwood. Moreover, the party's Eurosceptic stance could have an impact on the UK's role in shaping environmental policy in Brussels.

"Potentially the EU can be a force for greener behaviour - though in practice it hasn't always worked out like that," Tim Yeo says. "It's a great fallacy to think that by being nice to other EU countries and institutions you suddenly are able to exercise greater influence - in my view there's almost no evidence to support that."

A hostage to fortune?
Mr Howard concluded his speech with the complaint that "there is almost no meaningful debate" on the environment. "It means that politicians like me can trot up to the odd conference, and make a fine and concerned speech, and go away again perhaps coming back in 12 months to chuck around a few statistics."

Time will tell if these words are a serious attempt to convince his audience of his "passionate" commitment to the environment - or breath-taking chutzpah.

Related Environmental Services

Powered by ENDS Directory

Compliance Search

Discover all ENDS content in one place, including legislation summaries to keep up to date with compliance deadlines

Compliance Deadlines

Plan ahead with our Calendar feature highlighting upcoming compliance deadlines

News from ENDS Europe

News from ENDS Waste & Bioenergy