The UK political conference season has come to an end, the last before the General Election scheduled for May 2015. So, with manifestos starting to take shape, and given that leadership on green issues is the difference between leaps forward and incremental improvements in sustainability, how much leadership did the main party leaders show? Here's my summary (with the usual disclosure that I'm a member of the Liberal Democrats, but I'll try to be objective!):
First up was Ed Miliband, Labour leader. His speech was wildly derided for flogging to death the already knackered 'I met a normal person recently who thinks just like me' trope and for forgetting to mention the yawning economic deficit. But he did remember to cover green issues (he forgot them in 2012), and it was good, clear stuff, making green jobs one of his 6 goals for the next parliament if he takes the keys to No 10 next year:
So our third national goal is for Britain to be truly a world leader in Green technology by 2025, creating one million new jobs as we do.
Under this government, Britain is behind Germany, Japan, the United States and even India and China for low-carbon, green technologies and services. So many of our brilliant businesses are desperate to play their part in creating their jobs of the future but they just can’t do it unless government does its bit. With our plan, we will.
Making a clear commitment to take the carbon out of our electricity by 2030. A Green Investment Bank with real powers to borrow and attract investment. And as Caroline Flint announced yesterday, devolving power to our communities so that we can insulate 5 million homes. The environment may not be fashionable as a political issue any more. But I believe it is incredibly important to our economy today. And it is the most important thing I can do in politics for the future of my kids and their generation.
The second leader to speak was Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, back from the UN where he gave the first speech on climate change by a British PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1990. He said some very interesting things then, but I said the litmus test would be how much of a priority he gave it when addressing the party faithful. He flunked it. To say green issues got a token mention is stretching the meaning of 'token', with Cameron merely mentioning 'Britain leading the battle against climate change' in passing. His green/blue 'green growth, not green tape' message at the UN could have, and should have, been a compelling pitch to bring round the anti-green forces in his party, but given he has just lost a couple of his MPs to the maverick, climate change-denying UKIP, one can only assume that he decided not to rock the boat.
Lastly, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister took to the podium. His party may be languishing in the polls and his personal ratings at rock bottom, but with another tight election in prospect, it is very possible that he will find himself in negotiation to form another coalition Government next year. Clegg made several references to environmental issues throughout his speech, but two passages were important, the first being to claim credit for progress under the current Government:
And just as we are refusing to saddle our children with mountains of debt, we are determined to hand them on a clean planet too. Both parties in this Government promised we would stick to our green commitments, but it has taken constant pressure from the Liberal Democrats – not least Ed Davey – to hold the Tories to their word. And I can tell you now that a sustainable environment will remain at the heart of our vision for Britain’s future – it’s not green crap to us.
That last line was a potshot at what Cameron is alleged to have said about green taxes on electricity production. Clegg later returned to the theme to set out five green laws:
...if you want to spread opportunity you can’t just stop at today. You have to think about tomorrow too. And for that same reason, our next manifesto will contain something I can guarantee you none of the others will: A commitment to five green laws. Laws that will commit British governments to reducing carbon from our electricity sector…Create new, legal targets for clean air and water…Give everyone access to green space… Massively boost energy efficiency and renewable energy… Prioritise the shift to green cars…Bring an end to dirty coal… Because Liberal Democrats understand that opportunity for everyone means thinking not just of this generation, but of future generations too.
So, in summary, Miliband and Clegg not only made clear commitments on sustainability, but sketched in some of the important detail behind that - as much as you can be expected to in a wide-ranging speech. Cameron flattered to deceive - if he means what he said at the UN, then we have something of a political consensus, but any personal commitment won't count unless steps up and shows leadership - to the public, to industry and to his party faithful.