Science & Environment

PM's pledge of greenest government 'vanishingly remote'

Heathrow airport (Getty Images)
Image caption The decision not to build a third runway at Heathrow was welcomed by greens

The government's chance of being the "greenest ever" - as the prime minister has claimed - is "vanishingly remote", a former adviser has said.

Jonathon Porritt, former head of the Sustainable Development Commission, carried out the review which was funded by Friends of the Earth.

He examined 75 policies, finding little or no progress in 55.

The government said it remains committed to the environment, but the recession had affected its policies.

Green wash

Mr Porritt said the government had scrapped a planned rise in aviation tax, failed to create a green investment bank with immediate borrowing powers and had watered down schemes promoting small-scale renewable electricity.

He added that Prime Minister David Cameron had failed to curb what he calls the Treasury's fixation with economic growth, whether it damages the environment or not.

Mr Porritt believed that the position of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had been substantially weakened under the coalition government.

He noted that George Osborne, before the election, promised: "If I become chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe" - but Mr Porritt says that the opposite has proved to be the case. 

"It is clear the 'growth at all costs' lobby has won out over the advocates of sustainable economic development," Mr Porritt observed.

He added that there were growing fears that Treasury officials were pressuring ministers to reject new carbon reduction targets recommended by the government's official advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change.

Mr Porritt's report assessed the coalition government's record on the five themes identified by ministers as central to ambitions to maintain sustainable development.

  • Building a Green Economy
  • Tackling Climate Change
  • Protecting and Enhancing our Natural Environment
  • Ensuring Fairness and Wellbeing
  • Building the Big Society

Of the 75 green policies examined in detail, 28 were judged to be "moribund", 27 had "very limited growth", 14 saw "encouraging progress" and "the birds were singing" for just six.

On the positive side, the report mentions: "Scrapping plans to expand airports in the south-east of England, agreeing to roll out smart meters to 30 million homes from 2014 and announcing the world's first Renewable Heat Incentive."

Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary said: "The government has tried to sell off our forests, cut investment in flood defences by 27%, delayed on the waste review and Water White Paper, and abolished the Sustainable Development Commission.

"That's not a green vision but an abject failure of the government to get to grips with the environment."

The report was published as an annual survey by journal ENDS revealed that more than a third of organisations which responded to the survey were cutting jobs.

Also, it found that more than half of 2,000 environmental professionals that took part thought that UK green job opportunities would continue to shrink in 2011, and three-in-five expected public spending cuts to directly affect environmental employment in their organisation.

"This survey is a wake-up call for government," said ENDS editor-in-chief Nick Rowcliffe.

"Real progress towards a greener economy is going to require exactly the multi-disciplinary skills that have built up over years in the environmental profession, and which are now under threat."

A government spokesman said it stood by its "excellent record on green policies over the last year to protect the environment and deliver the low carbon economy".

"Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman played a major role in securing an historic global deal to protect wildlife and habitats and, in a tough economic climate, increased the budget for farming environmental schemes by 80%, and provided hundreds of millions of pounds to clean up England's rivers and support international forestry and wildlife projects," he said.

"We are currently undertaking the biggest reform of the electricity market since privatisation to secure billions in investment for low carbon electricity generation.

"And there is legislation going through Parliament right now to bring about the green deal, the first scheme of its kind in the world, cutting carbon and bills in millions of homes across the UK."

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