Low-carbon is the only way out of the downturn

Our current economic difficulties are largely a result of dependence on oil and inefficient use of resources. But as the major parties line up for the next election, we can seize this challenge to the advantage of a green agenda.

Right now 2008 feels awfully like 1995. A government divided and well behind in the polls, an opposition exuding confidence but with relatively few policy commitments, and an increasingly serious economic downturn. It’s a daunting backdrop for climate change policy. What can we hope to achieve between now and a general election in 2010?

There is a bleak and all too realistic scenario for the next two years. The credit crunch could lead politicians and electorate alike to focus on short-term solutions to their immediate pressures on job security, household income and the rising costs of housing, heat, food and fuel. Environmental policy-making could be marginalised, leaving no lasting dividend from Gordon Brown’s three years as prime minister and a new government (as seems very likely) ill-prepared for the scale of the challenges ahead.

There are signs that this could happen. Green Alliance, along with eight other leading NGOs, has just released Fit for the future? the 2007-08 Green Standard Review of the parties. The report found that the commitment of all three main parties has begun to wane in the past year.

But this need not come to pass. The argument is there to be won. Our current economic woes are to a considerable degree a result of over-dependence on oil and inefficient resource use, and our vulnerability to the rising price of fuel, energy and food. The only long-term solution to the downturn is a low-carbon economy. There is no sustainable high-carbon pathway to prosperity. If we can win this battle, victory on other fronts will follow. The response to the Green Standard report by all parties suggests that we can do so.

The overwhelming priority for the remainder of this parliament is to secure a global deal on climate change in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. That is an immense opportunity for Gordon Brown. After eight years of relative inaction Tony Blair’s hunt for a legacy led him in 2005 to climate change. His leadership in the G8 and Europe was critical to re-opening the international debate on the matter.

The potential prize for Gordon Brown is far greater. He has an opportunity to play a truly historic role in securing the global deal if he is prepared to put this at the very top of his priorities and to maximise the UK’s influence by cooperating with others in the European Union. The search for a global deal will push climate change right up the public agenda in 2009. The prime minister has an opportunity to lead this search and enter 2010 strengthened by success at Copenhagen.

As Blair discovered to his cost, action at home is a prerequisite for international influence and credibility at home. The government’s current approach to domestic action is contradictory, with an ambitious renewable energy strategy accompanied by the threat of a new era of dirty coal and a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Labour’s Climate Change Bill creates a strong new framework for UK action. But it is the delivery plan for the Bill, due in mid-2009, on which Labour will be judged. It must give investors and public the certainty they need that these goals will be met.

The renewables strategy on which Labour is currently consulting is the most high profile and critical element of this. It could be Gordon Brown’s most important domestic climate legacy, triggering a dramatic shift in investment and providing a tremendous boost to UK manufacturing and employment.

The Conservatives are in a very different phase. They may have their own legacy to worry about, but they should be worried about Labour’s. They need to ensure that they do not wake up on their first day in office with a hangover, unattainable targets and an empty folder marked "delivery plan". They should do everything they can now to ensure that Labour’s actions on renewables, transport and other issues improve the prospects of meeting the targets they look likely to be accountable for in office. By doing so, they can demonstrate the leadership they have shown on issues like aviation taxation and improve the legacy Labour may bequeath them.

David Cameron’s aspirations cannot be faulted. His recognition that the downturn means "we can’t afford not to go green" was very welcome. But as Labour have found to their cost, promises are easier to make than to keep. The Conservatives need to develop a plan that makes them a credible government in waiting, ready to "drive forward the environmental agenda from day one", as George Osborne pledged to Green Alliance in July. Given the central role the environment has played in creating brand Cameron, failure is unthinkable for them. But there is a long way to go.

The contribution of the Liberal Democrats is too often overlooked. They may well be the kingmakers in a hung parliament after the next election. Their environmental commitment has been their most distinguishing feature in recent years. That has waned at times over the past year. But there is plenty of time to set the terms of debate and action beyond 2010, as Nick Clegg began to do in August.

Each party has distinct challenges to address to establish their environmental credentials in 2010 and prepare for the next parliament. A global agreement on climate change at Copenhagen would be a historic prize for Gordon Brown and requires action at home and abroad. The Conservatives can play their part in this and establish themselves as a government in waiting by setting the agenda for domestic action in this parliament and the next, along with the Liberal Democrats.

The need to chart a low-carbon pathway out of the downturn is the overriding challenge for them all. It’s the only route worth taking. There is no lasting high-carbon path to prosperity. Look back in anger? Let’s not.

Stephen Hale is the director of Green Alliance, www.green-alliance.org.uk. Tom Burke is away.