Monday, April 26th, 2010 10:27 pm
'Clegg unveils green energy vision' – headline on the BBC news web site in August 2008, and spoofed here

For as long as I can remember, I have been concerned with our levels of energy use. I'm old enough to remember the tail end of 1973, when petrol rationing was introduced, and petrol coupons issued to my parents. In the event, rationing was informal (but effective), and the ration books unused, but the psychological impact of realising that something like petrol could be limited stayed with me. The power cuts didn't shore up my faith in the stability of the energy supply, either.

Another formative memory in the 1970s is that of recycling newspaper. Actual recycling was, at the time, a minority pursuit. If there was a tendency to cut down on waste at the time, it was very much driven by a collective memory of the austerity of the war and the post-war years, causing everything that could possibly be repurposed to be saved from the waste bin. For example, what packaging there was would not be thrown away, but re-used where possible. Blue Peter showed us weekly how to make endless flimsy structures out of old egg-boxes, toothpaste tube lids and toilet-roll inserts. My marbles and coin collection (and dad's collection of drill bits) were stored in my grandfather's seemingly endless supply of tobacco tins.

At the time, recycling was unusual, and was arranged by individual people in a system reminiscent of a revolutionary cell. We would individually collect the newspapers from everyone on our estate, bundle them up and then, every month or so, drive them to a friend in a nearby village. Her garage would slowly fill up with the loads brought by us, and people like us, until she in turn had enough papers to pass on to a national paper recycling firm. It was very much a cottage industry, quite possibly consumed more resources than it saved – even then, it was acknowledged that most individual efforts to be environmentally responsible were more symbolic than everything - and it was almost exclusively run by the local Liberals.

I don't mean it was run by the Liberals officially. Green politics was still a good ten years away. But the people who cared enough to organise it were almost exclusively the sort of left-wing rural hippy who found a natural home in the Liberals at that time. As my parents were also Liberal members, I came to associate the two, and that association has never gone away.

This also means that I view the current obsession with carbon dioxide[1] as a relatively new fad. Don't get me wrong, I fully believe that global warming is being caused by man-made overproduction of CO2, and that we should be doing everything we can to reverse it. It's just that it's only a small part of my commitment to what are now known as 'green' issues.

I also suspect that we're just not going to succeed with CO2. The industrialised nations just aren't going to be badly enough affected by global warming to take it seriously until it's too late, and in any case will have the best resources to deal with the problems that do occur. It may very well cause widespread famine in Africa and kill off entire countries, but the environmental damage already being done to the Third World by our industrialised lifestyles doesn't currently stop us living them. That said, Liberal Democrat policy firmly believes that we can cut CO2 emissions, and I'm very pleased that it does; I would dearly love to be proved wrong on this. We have policy to support the 10:10 initiative, and our councils across Britain are signed up and committed to cutting CO2 emissions by 10% in 2010.

What certainly will hurt energy-hungry countries like Britain is the lack of a sustainable solution for generating power. I've reviewed David J C MacKay's book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air previously, but if you haven't encountered it, it's a sobering read. Realistically, we can generate less than a quarter of our current energy needs renewably in the UK; the rest will need to come from some combination of nuclear power, importing energy from abroad (possibly from solar panels covering the Sahara), and 'clean' coal. Plus, obviously, reducing our consumption. Chris Huhne has been talking in terms of decreasing our energy consumption since 2006. It's not what people want to hear, but it surely is a vital part of long-term energy sustainabilty. We must be less profligate with our energy consumption, and even where energy use is necessary, use it as efficiently as possible. Heat better insulated buildings with heat pumps, make the bulk of transport electrically-powered and, in many cases, sacrifice convenience for economy.

Liberal Democrat policy on this is good, although it doesn't go nearly far enough for my liking. One heartening thing is that environmental issues aren't an adjunct to our other policies, but inform them at every level. Our manifesto is full of them in nearly every section, and they are complete energy-saving and waste-reducing measures; many will reduce CO2, but they don't focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. For example, we also recognise the greenhouse effect contributions of HFCs, which have replaced ozone-destroying CFCs in refrigerators, but which are still a significant greenhouse gas.

Being environmentally friendly will hurt. One of the goals of our policy is to spread that hurt around in a fair way. For example, we support road pricing, but only as a revenue-neutral switch away from road tax (otherwise rural communities who more-or-less have to use cars get clobbered). On a global level, we have an entire page in our manifesto devoted to ensuring that the developing world continues to be able to develop, even as it becomes badly affected by climate change that is not of its making.

But the most exciting part for me is the so-called 'green stimulus plan', which aims to make sure that as we build a new economy coming out of the recession, it has sustainability at its heart. This isn't just a matter of not damaging the environment further, but of investing in creating jobs in the 'green' sector where we desperately need them. The North of England and Scotland have shipyards lying idle and skilled workers who could staff them, so we will turn the shipyards over to making offshore wind turbines and other marine renewable energy equipment. We will loan schools money to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings; a loan which they will pay back out of the energy savings they make and which will then go into a rolling fund to improve the energy efficiency of every public building. We will encourage the renovation of the 250,000 empty homes across the UK by offering a grant or a cheap loan and, crucially, it will be a grant if the home is to be used for social housing, which we need desperately. This is a plausible way to rebuild the economy, while at the same time making it more sustainable.

I risk quoting the bulk of our manifesto at you when you can read it elsewhere if you wish. So I'll close with the observation that one of the reasons our 'green' policies are well thought out and integrated with the rest of our manifesto is that we've been doing this for a while, both at an individual level and in Liberal Democrat-run councils across the UK.

[1] Don't get me started on the unscientific shorthand of talking about 'carbon' footprints. The Liberal Democrats' (otherwise excellent) 'Zero Carbon Britain' document is a gross offender in this respect. You can create and destroy CO2, but not carbon itself (that's not completely true, but it is in the context of UK energy generation).