Good news on Heathrow but Lib Dems to abstain on nuclear

The parties have seen eye-to-eye in this area on scrapping the Heathrow expansion plans, for example, and on new emissions standards for power plants.

With details of the coalition agreement struck between David Cameron and Nick Clegg now emerging, many reports have cited environment policy as an area where there is a lot of common ground between the two parties. Indeed, Left Foot Forward correctly predicted a few days ago that the parties could see eye to eye in this area on scrapping the Heathrow expansion plans, for example, and on new emissions standards for power plants.

On the face of it, there are a number of impressive-looking, headline grabbing green initiatives in the coalition deal – but the devil could still be in the detail. We see a historic, and clearly progressive, pledge to cancel expansion plans at Stansted, Gatwick and Heathrow, and to replace the air passenger duty with a per flight duty instead.

But there is nothing on whether aviation growth will simply be moved to other airports like Birmingham and Manchester, which would cancel out any carbon savings made.

Perhaps the boldest green move in the coalition agreement is the pledge to try and increase the renewable energy target. It shows exactly the sort of ‘yes we can’ attitude, and bold ambition that we need to see to green our economy – but of course we’ve yet to examine the new policies and measures new climate change secretary Chris Huhne will put forward to make it happen.

Both parties have followed through on their commitment to create a new Green Investment Bank to help kick start investment in clean energy, but there is no detail on what money will be put forward. On the campaign trail, the Lib Dems promised three times what the Tories put forward – and even then neither party’s sums were at a significant enough scale to raise the funds required for the low-carbon transition.

How progressive this new initiative actually is will depend upon how much public money will be raised to leverage the private equity needed for new jobs in clean energy manufacturing and deployment, and in particular in upgrading our ports to accommodate for the offshore wind industry.

The Lib Dems agreed to abstain on the issue of new nuclear plants, which could pave the way for new nuclear stations, except that both parties have written into the agreement that they wouldn’t allow any public subsidy to make this happen. Well, no nuclear station has been built without subsidy, anywhere in the world, ever. So new nuclear is definitely now in doubt. The economics simply don’t stack up.

It is certainly good news to see the confirmation that an emissions performance standard will be introduced for power stations, but we don’t yet know the level at which it will be set. The Lib Dems’ went into the election with a promise to pass tough pollution standards for new power stations that would rule out dirty coal plants like Kingsnorth, while the Tories backed off from firm commitments at the last minute.

Greenpeace, Oxfam and WWF are urging the new government to adopt something closer to the original Lib Dem policy of restricting emissions from new power stations to around 350g of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity it generates, but this detail whilst technical will be absolutely critical in deciding how powerful this new policy could be in capping pollution from the power sector, and driving investment into the clean alternatives.

The new government has committed to try to persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning of ETS permits, which George Monbiot rightly noted could be a game changer, but again that requires a multilateral European approach. One glaring hole in the Lib-Con deal is on what role Britain will play in the international efforts to halt global warming.

Will the new government follow the last government in pushing to up the ambition of Europe’s carbon target to at least a 30% cut on 1990 levels by 2020?

This was one of the deal breakers in Copenhagen, and will be key going forward into future negotiations – but we don’t know yet what the new Liberal Conservatives will push for in Brussels and it could prove a tricky issue given Cameron’s climate sceptic allies in Europe. Yes, the ones Nick Clegg once rightly described as “nutters”.

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