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Coalition green ambitions hampered

Absence of a clear transition strategy is undermining the coalition government's commitment to a low-carbon agenda, writes Hannah Kyrke-Smith.

The UK's coalition government was formed in May 2010 on the basis of a common policy platform thrashed out over several politically charged days. That platform, the coalition programme, contains significant commitments to a low-carbon transition. These lie at the heart of the government's promise to be the 'greenest ever' and should increase the UK's economic resilience by decreasing our dependency on fossil fuels.

In the coalition programme, the government shows a clear recognition of the scale and urgency of the climate challenge and commits to an ambitious response: 'The government believes that climate change is one of the gravest threats we face, and that urgent action at home and abroad is required. We need to use a wide range of levers to cut carbon emissions, decarbonise the economy and support the creation of new green jobs and technologies. We will implement a full programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for a low-carbon and eco-friendly economy.'

On the basis that the government should be held to account, Green Alliance and four of the UK's leading environment/development NGOs – Greenpeace, RSPB, WWF and Christian Aid – have assessed the government's progress against 29 low-carbon commitments. The product of five months' research and extensive discussions with over 40 officials and ministers across Whitehall, Climate Check was published shortly before the 2011 autumn party conferences.

The report finds the government has shown commitment to the low-carbon agenda with good decisions in challenging economic times. Good progress is being made on seven of the 29 commitments, including the government's acceptance of the Committee on Climate Change's fourth carbon budget recommendation, the Renewable Heat Incentive (although recent delays call this into question), positive engagement on moving the EU to a 30 per cent emissions-reduction target, good progress on supporting aspects of low-carbon transport, and the cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow.

However, the absence of a strong low-carbon transition strategy and narrative from senior ministers is hampering delivery of the programme. Key moments, such as the establishment of the Green Investment Bank, were undercut by very public inter-departmental battles, undermining investor confidence.

Moderate or no progress is being made on 22 commitments due to delays, poor policy design, or both. For example, the Green Deal, the government's flagship carbon-reduction policy, is at risk of failing because of lack of urgency and support. The government is failing on six commitments, three of which the Treasury is responsible for. By ruling out green financial products to provide opportunities to invest in green infrastructure, failing to reform aviation taxation by moving to a per-plane duty, and failing to make meaningful progress on delivering a significant green tax shift, the Treasury's commitment to the Coalition programme is called into question.

We found little evidence of divisions along party lines. Instead, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat champions of low-carbon policies have been held back by their own party. The Treasury and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) stand out as having curbed the government's ambition on the low-carbon agenda. George Osborne's speech at the Conservative Party conference confirms this: 'We're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business' [so] we're going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than ... Europe'. Without stronger direction, departments such as the Treasury and BIS will continue to hold back progress.

In the report we make several high-level recommendations aimed at increasing cross-government accountability, and increasing the Prime Minister's engagement. This government has the opportunity to turn the UK into a world-leader in green investment, and could achieve greater public benefit from the significant public expenditure being invested in the low-carbon transition. *

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