Too much coal in this coalition, but I was expecting worse


12 May 2010The Guardian

Read the full text of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition deal

Perhaps it's just as well that the environment was shoved to the bottom of the coalition agreement: by the time they got there, it seems, the Neanderthal wing of the Conservative party was too exhausted to oppose it. It's sketchy and covers only some of the issues the new government will have to deal with, but it could have been a lot worse.

Possibly the most important measure it contains is the commitment to create "a floor price for carbon, as well as efforts to persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning of emissions trading scheme (ETS) permits". The government can't act alone on either issue, but if it's serious about this it could help turn the ETS from a useless, nobbled programme, governed by the demands of pollutocrats, into a system that forces companies to clean up. Whether you like carbon trading or not, if we're going to have it, it's got to work.

But as if to show that they haven't really thought this through, they've decided to supplement the ETS belt with braces and suspenders: as well as creating a functioning emissions trading system, they intend to maintain feed-in tariffs and the renewables obligation system. This could be an insurance policy, in case a sensible ETS doesn't materialise. But if it does, they will end up with three separate and incompatible systems.

Sorry, make that four. Like the renewables obligation, the proposed emissions performance standard – forcing power stations to produce no more than a certain amount of carbon – is a good idea in its own right, but it would become redundant if the ETS really kicks in. Which policy do they intend to prioritise?

There's nothing in the document about the supply of fossil fuels, but judging from both parties' manifestos they'll be seeking to maximise production, even as they are trying to minimise consumption.

They say that the emissions performance standard will prevent new coal-fired power stations from being built unless they use sufficient carbon capture and storage.

But they don't tell us what the standard will be, so at the moment we don't know what proportion of their CO2 power stations will have to capture.

In either case, without a constraint on fossil fuel supply and without any mention of stopping opencast mining, it looks as if there'll be too much coal in this coalition.

None of this really distinguishes the new government from the last one. But that's the problem. You might have thought that some fresh thinking would have identified and tackled the contradictions.

Another gap is the absence of policy on onshore renewable energy. There's an intention "to increase the target for energy from renewable sources" and introduce "measures to encourage marine energy", but nothing about onshore developments.

Keep an eye on this issue: there could be some big bust-ups as the Lib Dems insist that onshore windfarms are needed to help meet the government's targets, while the shire Tories fight them tooth and nail. Expect plenty of aggro over nuclear power too, even though they have politely agreed to disagree.

The cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow and the refusal of additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted is a definite improvement.

It would have been even more cheering if the agreement had said no new airport space in the UK.

The danger is that flights are displaced from the south-east to other parts of the country. If the government is serious about this issue, why not introduce a moratorium on all new runways or runway extensions?

But the measures which might do more than any others to change environment policies aren't listed in the environment section. Who would have thought that a majority Tory government would introduce "the restoration of rights to non-violent protest"? Or, to be more accurate, that 13 years of Labour government would have made this restoration necessary?

If the coalition is serious about this, and if it repeals outrageous measures such as powers to stop peaceful protests under the Protection from Harassment Act, 2000 Terrorism Act and 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, we'll be better able to make our voices heard if politicians don't protect the environment.

We must push them to get these measures repealed as quickly as possible.

So it's better than I had expected. The agreement's environmental policies are more Lib Dem than Conservative, and more progressive than most of the other proposals in the document. Let's see how it works in practice.