An environmental bidding war seems to have broken out in Westminster in the run-up to next week's budget. The Government has announced its intention to promote low-carbon transport by offering subsidies to encourage the public to buy electric cars and installing charging points for the vehicles. Meanwhile, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, has delivered a speech outlining what the Conservatives would do to "green" our economy and criticising the Government for being behind the curve.
It is heartening that the environment is becoming a political battleground and that this vital agenda has not been eclipsed by the recession. Yet, precisely because this agenda is so important, we must rigorously analyse what is being proposed.
There is certainly a case for Government investment to kick-start the market for electric vehicles. But any serious effort to reduce the emissions of the transport sector will need to include action to increase the provision of renewable energy and an expansion of public transport. As Friends of the Earth has pointed out, electric cars are only as green as the electricity they run on. Without the rapid expansion of wind power and high-speed rail, the Government's plans will simply become a subsidy to the car industry.
There were encouraging signs in Mr Osborne's speech yesterday that the Tories understand the need for a comprehensive approach from government to the building of a green economy. The shadow chancellor articulated his party's support for the introduction of "feed-in tariffs", which would allow individuals to sell excess energy produced through domestic solar panels and wind turbines back to the national grid. Mr Osborne also backed large subsidies for home energy conservation measures and government support for carbon capture technology for coal-fired power stations.
These are sound ideas. It is true that energy conservation and feed-in tariffs are the "low hanging fruit" of the green economic agenda. Some of the other necessary measures – such as raising the tax on highly polluting activities – will be much more painful. But the fact is that the Government has failed to pick these low-hanging fruits over the past decade. And the result is that Britain is lagging behind the best in Europe when it comes to green energy. Germany's adoption of feed-in tariffs, for instance, has helped it to develop 200 times the solar power capacity of Britain.
The Conservatives, at least, are demonstrating that they recognise the need to make up for lost time. And, just as important, these proposals help to dispel the notion that the Tories are backing away from their previous commitments on the environment.
There is, however, another challenge facing our political leaders when it comes to the environmental agenda. Politicians of all stripes need to convey to the public the tangible benefits of a green transformation of our economy. A boost to renewable energy will not only decrease our reliance on imported oil, it will help create jobs. Energy conservation in the home will not only curb carbon emissions, but will cut fuel bills over time. An expansion of electric cars will improve the air quality of our cities.
The party that wins on the environmental battleground will be the one that not only devises the most effective policies, but does the best job of selling them to the electorate.