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Polarised response to the English riots could spell more bad news for the green agenda

[….] The riots are just the latest in a series of scandals and crises that have contributed to a period of polarisation that has left the UK’s political elite and media commentariat looking more and more like their US counterparts. […]

This polarisation could have two major impacts on green issues: one short-term and practical, the other long-term and political.

The first concern is that the riots and their fallout will eat up all the political oxygen for months, if not years to come. A party conference season that should have seen at least some debate on the grave threat posed by climate change and the huge opportunity presented by the low carbon economy will now be dominated by much hand-wringing and political jostling over “the state of modern Britain”.

Politicians may insist they are good at multi-tasking but, as the economic crisis has shown, they are rarely adept at dealing with more than one or two big issues at a time. Good luck to Chris Huhne and his colleagues at DECC as they seek to get important announcements about electricity market reforms and other flagship green policies into the headlines this autumn. Equally, good luck to shadow energy and climate change secretary Meg Hillier as she attempts to continue with Labour’s efforts to develop a centre-left package of green policies at the same time as keeping on top of a day-job as MP for Hackney, one of the areas worst affected by looting and disorder. Even the Green Party is now likely to spend more time at its upcoming conference debating socio-economic issues than it is environmental policies.

Moreover, what price David Cameron jetting into a Durban Climate Change Summit that many observers regard as the last best chance of delivering an international agreement for tackling emissions, when every time he leaves the country he has to rush back to respond to the next domestic crisis?

More concerning still is the extent to which a hardening of Left-Right divisions will make it ever harder to maintain the political consensus on the urgent need to tackle climate change and develop a green economy that has proven so crucial to the development of successful low carbon policies.

It remains noticeable that neither David Cameron nor George Osborne have yet given a serious speech on the environment since taking office, a scenario that is now even less likely to change. Despite brave efforts from the likes of Greg Barker, Oliver Letwin, Tim Yeo, Zac Goldsmith and David Cameron himself, there remains a sizeable rump of the Conservative Party that sees environmental issues as tree-hugging lefty nonsense. The riots have undoubtedly emboldened those Conservative backbenchers who are at best indifferent to environmental issues and at worst openly hostile to green policies. Significantly, they are supported by a similarly emboldened right-wing media that has in recent months cranked up its opposition to environmental initiatives, most notably through the Daily Mail’s increasingly overt climate scepticism and repeated attacks on green energy policies.

It has been noted before that the staggeringly narrow pool from which MPs are now selected means that new-intake MPs of all political shades are more extreme in their views and more ideologically driven – a scenario that is bad news for climate change and environmental issues which, as painful experiences in the US and Australia have shown, can become quickly politicised.

It is easy to envisage the riots acting as a tipping point that simultaneously pushes green issues down the political agenda and makes them more politicised. Just as it is easy to envisage the political response to the riots either securing the next election for an increasingly reactionary Conservative Party, or (less likely) providing a platform for a Labour recovery based on the accusation the coalition has done untold harm to the country’s social fabric and economic prospects.

What are the implications of this analysis for the UK’s burgeoning green business sector – a sector which, according to recent government figures, defied the downturn to grow 4.3 per cent in 2009/10 and is now worth £4.8bn a year?

As with all debates on environmental policy, the fallout from the riots means little for green businesses in the long-term, but could prove extremely frustrating in the short to medium-term.

As we’ve argued time and again at BusinessGreen, the risks posed by climate change and resource depletion, coupled with the opportunities presented by emerging clean technologies that are superior to the dirty technologies they replace, mean that many green investments can be justified regardless of the policy environment. Companies such as General Electric with its Ecomagination initiative, IBM with its Smart Planet drive, and Walmart with its greener supply chain push, are pursuing low carbon investments across countless different jurisdictions with hugely differing degrees of green policy maturity because they understand that when you take a long-term macro-economic view, there is no rational alternative to developing more resilient and more sustainable green business models.

However, in the shorter to medium-term, anything that pushes green issues down the political agenda or makes green policies fractionally harder to enact can undermine low carbon investor confidence and, as such, damage the prospects of green businesses. Consequently, the riots are not just a grievous blow to British self-confidence and a tragic indictment of our long-term failure to address deep-seated socio-economic failings – they could also represent yet another barrier to the development of a greener economy. An economy, which through the delivery of enhanced stability, greater sustainability, increased employment and improved living standards, would help make the kind of devastating riots we have seen in recent weeks a thing of the past.

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