The government has made life easier for big polluters

Government failure on this issue comes with a considerable cost.

Government failure on this issue comes with a considerable cost

It’s hard to believe, but when the coalition came to power in 2010 there was genuine hope that they might champion the environment.

It didn’t last long. Shortly after promising the ‘greenest government ever’, Cameron’s flagship pledge started taking on water and his administration’s credibility on the environment has now all but sunk.

So this week’s scathing report from a committee of MPs on the government’s environmental record came as little surprise.

MPs failed to find satisfactory progress in any of the ten areas they examined, with air pollution, biodiversity and flood protection coming in for special criticism.

But environmental issues are more important than ever – and government failure on this issue comes with a considerable cost.

Every year thousands of Britons die prematurely because of poor air quality, with the most vulnerable the worst affected.

Our bees are struggling to survive because of intensive farming and habitat loss – threatening food supplies which rely on them for pollination. The government has promised action, but has ducked tough decisions on pesticides increasingly linked to bee decline.

And communities across the country face a growing flooding risk because of failure to invest in defences – coinciding with marked changes in our climate.

Climate action has been abysmal too. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change, scepticism is rife among Conservatives. A poll last week showed fewer than a third of Tory MPs’ agreed that climate change is largely man-made.

Back in 2008, when climate change was more fashionable in Westminster, only a handful of Conservatives opposed the Climate Change Act. Now, with science even clearer, almost the opposite appears true.

But rather than bringing back-benchers into line, this scepticism has been increasing indulged by the coalition leadership, with plumb environmental cabinet posts handed to known sceptics.

Ministers have made life easier for big polluters, such as oil and gas firms, with tax breaks and other incentives.

Efforts to develop the UK’s huge renewable energy potential have been consistently undermined, with tougher restrictions on planning and an economically illiterate cap on overall sector investment.

And ministers have not only de-prioritised energy efficiency, they’ve actively campaigned against it; blocking EU efficiency targets.

The coalition’s junior partners, the Liberal Democrats, fought the last election on a strong environmental ticket. But, with one or two notable exceptions, they’ve failed to stand up for green issues in government.

Labour too must shoulder responsibility for allowing important green issues to fall off the political agenda. A number of shadow ministers have performed well, but Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have done too little to hold the government to account. Famously, in his party conference speech a couple of years ago, Ed Miliband forgot a whole passage devoted to the environment.

As we approach the next general election, next week’s Labour party conference is an opportunity to show the type of political leadership on the environment that’s been lacking for years – and that ambitious green policies are good for people too.

All parties must put the environment firmly at the heart of future policy making, including:

Action to insulate four million cold homes – saving households hundreds of pounds annually and helping to end fuel poverty misery.

Phasing out coal emissions within 10 years. Britain’s most climate-damaging fuel also causes 1,600 premature deaths through pollution each year.

Banning fracking and unconventional oil, coal and gas. Two thirds of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to avoid climate chaos. Adding to stockpiles makes no sense, nor does wrecking our countryside.

Backing Britain’s renewables. With proper backing, Britain can become a new clean energy powerhouse, creating thousands of jobs – with our cities leading the way.

As Mr Miliband heads to Manchester, the PM will head to New York for a global summit on climate change. It’s crucial they both remember that time is running out – and tough words are not enough. We need urgent action too.

Andrew Pendleton is head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth

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