Nick Clegg should use his speech on Thursday to lay out his vision for a green future for the UK. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
On Thursday Nick Clegg will deliver what’s being billed as a major speech on green issues. Could this be the Lib Dems’ route out of fourth place? “Vote for the moderately influential moderating influence” is not a great slogan if you want to overtake Ukip in the polls. And although blue and yellow is meant to give you green, in the case of the coalition it’s looking pretty faded.
But the environment does hold the possibility of the Lib Dems legislating from the front foot. On Monday night a heroic rebellion from the Lib Dem lords brought an end to the coal age dramatically closer, with strict new limits on how much we can burn for electricity. If the party can support this through the commons it will be a truly significant achievement.
Green issues could energise Lib Dem voters and appeal to both Tory and Labour waverers. Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, provides an excellent pantomime villain to go to war against, and has thoughtfully left all the scientific data and expertise on his policy areas for the exclusive use of his opponents. A government trashing precious places like the Gwent levels for a road extension, trying to sell our forests and shoot our wildlife provides a handy contrast for ministers wishing to highlight their green credentials.
The same applies to the Lib Dem contribution to the enviro-controversy du jour – energy bills. Ed Davey, the energy and climate secretary, has vowed to expose the attempts by the big six energy utilities to shift the blame from their own profiteering onto “green” levies, and “fight like a tiger” to defend them. We salute him. But on its own it won’t get you elected.
Might we suggest another approach. Energy is the place for you to be, because you’re already there – Ed Davey has one of the few departments under Lib Dem control. So set the agenda. Ditch a green tax!
Don’t wait for a Tory plan to moderate, get out ahead. Announce that in these times of economic austerity the hard-working, swing-voting, squeezed middle just can’t be expected to pony up again, and so we’re ditching George Osborne’s carbon floor price. The environmental movement won’t complain because the carbon floor price is rubbish. The revenue goes straight to HM Treasury as general taxation, where Osborne can spend it on subsidising, among other things, fracking.
Better yet, you could reform it to become an engine of green growth by directly channelling the revenue to investment in energy efficiency. You would maximise the electoral impact by spending it on reducing energy bills. Leave Labour defending their blunt instrument of a price freeze, and the Tories defending the indefensible, while the Lib Dems turn a problem into its own solution, cutting carbon and bills, and creating jobs in the UK. According to a recent report, spending the money generated by the carbon floor price on energy efficiency could actually eliminate fuel poverty in Britain entirely.
Energy efficiency measures are far more cost and carbon-efficient than any other form of intervention, and, unluckily for Britons but luckily for any energy minister wanting a cheap and easy victory, Britain has the most energy inefficient housing stock in Europe. If this fruit were hanging any lower it would be a root crop.
Then translate that momentum into an agenda – not just defending existing environment policies, but creating real Lib Dem achievements which you can showcase to say: Britain isn’t just ‘not as bad as it could have been’ – it’s a better place because of what we’ve done.
Take your successful example of spending money to save money and broaden the argument out to climate mitigation more generally. Point out that delaying action is a false economy – according to the International Energy Agency every $ 1 of low carbon investment avoided today means $ 4.30 of low carbon investments needed after 2020. Broaden out the benefits too – encourage community investment in renewable energy, as is being successfully pioneered by the independent mayor of Bristol, and, on a slightly larger scale, by Germany.
Explain that the hard-headed business brains of the world are leaving the UK behind. It’s not just the Germans, China spends more on renewables as a percentage of GDP than the UK does on renewables, nuclear energy and grid improvement combined. The CBI want more green investment, noting that green growth is one of the success areas for our economy. And none of this requires any optimism about the technologies involved – only low-information Tory ideologues think that renewables are somehow inherently left-wing and fossil fuels are a good investment for the future.
I’m not saying it’ll be easy, you’ll still need to push back against that anti-science clique on the Tory back benches. But push back from a position of strength, where the Lib Dems are finally making the running and successfully taking ownership of an issue. And not just any issue – climate change is the big one, the defining issue of this century. We’ll be right behind you, cheering you on in private. If you stop the charity gagging bill we might even be able to do so in public.
• John Sauven is the executive director of Greenpeace UK