Comment: The Budget was a terrible blow for the environment

Joss Garman is an energy campaigner for Greenpeace UK.
Joss Garman is an energy campaigner for Greenpeace UK.

Wednesday's Budget from George Osborne was the worst for the environment in recent memory.

By Joss Garman 

Before the election George Osborne said: "Instead of the Treasury blocking green reform, I want a Conservative Treasury to lead the development of the low carbon economy and finance a green recovery. If I become chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe."

Back then, when the Tories were detoxifying their brand, we were assured that voting blue would deliver the greenest government ever.


Support for our clean tech manufacturing industries – already growing at five per cent a year in an economy which can only manage 0.8% – could have become the cornerstone of our economic recovery. Instead, green industries were pushed aside to make way for a fossil fuel binge.

The most significant line in the speech for environmental campaigners was this one: "Gas is cheap, has much less carbon than coal and will be the largest single source of our electricity in the coming years."

Osborne's clearly never paid his own gas bill. The rest of us know gas is hugely expensive. As energy regulator Ofgem and the government's independent advisers – the Committee on Climate Change - have highlighted, gas is the primary reason for the recent hike in household energy bills. The Office of Budget Responsibility has suggested gas prices will go up even further – putting millions of British families at risk of a further squeeze on their finances.

And whilst Osborne is right that gas is lower carbon than coal, it's still hugely polluting, and it now poses the greatest risk to the UK failing to stay within our carbon budget. A new dash to gas will divert investment away from renewable energy and efficiency, and lock us into high levels of carbon emissions for decades to come. The committee on climate change – who advise ministers on how to stay within our carbon budgets – says that the UK's power sector must be almost zero carbon by 2030. If gas does indeed become "the single largest source of our electricity in the coming years" – it would make this almost impossible and critically undermine the UK's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The chancellor also took a leaf out of the Sarah Palin guide to energy policy ("drill baby, drill") with a taxpayer giveaway to the oil industry, incentivising new and risky deep sea oil drilling off the beautiful Shetland Islands. As The Independent recently reported, BP has admitted that a blow-out off Scotland could lead to the worst oil spill in world history. Osborne clearly doesn't care. He took £3 billion from hard working families and gave it to the oil majors for drilling. That's the same amount of money as the total he's promised – but not yet delivered – for the new Green Investment Bank.

There were also further tax breaks for the oil industry – in addition to that £3 billion – to pay for the cost of cleaning up old oil rigs.

In the coalition agreement David Cameron and his entire government promised no new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. Arguably, the abolition of the plan for a third runway at Heathrow was the prime minister's most totemic green pledge and the strongest piece of evidence that the Conservatives had changed. But this Osborne signalled an equally totemic U-turn.

"I also believe this country must confront the lack of airport capacity in the south east of England – we cannot cut ourselves off from the fastest growing cities in the world," he said. "The transport secretary will set out government thinking later this summer."

Nothing's changed since David Cameron and Nick Clegg ruled out new runways – except they've caved in to the aviation industry lobbyists. Osborne has effectively given the thumbs up to a jump in carbon emissions and two fingers to the huge numbers condemned to the blight of more noise and air pollution.

Wednesday was a bad day for the environment – and it will be Britain's precious countryside and wildlife, as well as those bearing the brunt of climate change, that will pick up the tab.

Before the budget, Greenpeace commissioned some polling to determine how the Conservative brand's detox programme was holding up. Three per cent of Conservative voters still claimed to believe that this is the greenest government ever, and precisely zero per cent of Lib Dems agreed with them. That was before the Budget. After letting Osborne ally his government so closely with the dirtiest polluters and re-toxifying the Conservative brand, it will take more than a few environmentally friendly sound bites for David Cameron to undo the damage done by his chancellor and get his modernisation project back on track.

Joss Garman is an energy campaigner for Greenpeace UK.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners. 

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