Coalition ministers have repeatedly pledged that this will be "the greenest Government ever". That is not setting the bar terribly high, given the meagre record of previous administrations on the environment. But nor, at this early stage, is it at all clear whether the promise is likely to be kept.
The Coalition has yielded little of great benefit for the environment thus far. There are promises of a Green Investment Bank to finance new renewable energy infrastructure. Councils have been permitted to sell their surplus renewable energy back to the grid. But the Government has walked away from a pledge to ban the sale of non-sustainable rainforest timber in Britain. And ministers have reneged on a commitment to allow early adopters of domestic solar panels and wind turbines to sell electricity back to the grid at the same rate as new installers. So the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, had a lot of convincing to do in his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference yesterday.
In the end, he only did half a job. Mr Huhne restated the Coalition's environmental ambitions and promised an official drive to increase energy efficiency in homes (funded upfront by the energy companies). Mr Huhne is right to stress that energy conservation must be at the heart of efforts to bring down Britain's emissions. These are the low-hanging fruits which previous governments shamefully failed to pluck.
But official ambition needs to be much greater if Britain is to meet its international commitments on reducing emissions. If these targets are to be met, a host of new taxes need to be introduced in the coming years to act as a disincentive to carbon-intensive activity. On paper the two parties of the Coalition understand this. The Conservative manifesto proposed to raise the proportion of revenue raised from green taxes. And the Liberal Democrats have long advocated a "green tax switch", raising fuel duties and other penalties on polluting activities and cutting levies elsewhere to compensate.
But carbon taxes are much more politically sensitive than investing in renewable energy and energy conservation. Voters are much more wary of stick than carrot from governments. Yet Mr Huhne and his fellow ministers need to prepare the political ground for these sorts of levies now. Because unless the Coalition starts to move on this front, its bold environmental pledges are destined to remain little more than well-meaning rhetoric.Reuse content