ANNUS HORRIBILIS is how George Monbiot, the environment writer, described 2012 in his first column of 2013. It was, he explained in the Guardian, the year we did our best to abandon the natural world.
“In the UK in 2012, the vandals were given the keys to the art gallery. Environmental policy is now in the hands of people – such as George Osborne, Owen Paterson, Richard Benyon and Eric Pickles – who have no more feeling for the natural world than the Puritans had for fine art.”
And he didn’t stop there. Internationally, there has also been what he calls a “great global polishing: a rubbing away of ecosystems and natural structures by the intensification of farming, fishing, mining and other industries”.
In the face of austerity, climate change and sustainability have become, in Monbiot’s words, “a guilty secret”. The Earth Summit in June delivered little and the climate meeting in Doha even less. It seems as though governments, blinded by economic woes, have lost sight of the future. Nowhere is this more the case than with energy.
In late November last year, Ed Davey, the energy minister, published the government’s Energy Bill – legislation that has been trailed as the roadmap for the UK’s switch to a low-carbon economy. Green groups praised the bill’s support for renewables, but there was also condemnation of the delay to the decarbonisation target for electricity generation. Many argued it prevented the government living up to its early claims on the environment – and stalled progress towards the Climate Change Act targets for 2050.
“The coalition has caved in to [the chancellor George] Osborne’s reckless dash for gas and banged the final nail in the coffin of [the prime minister David] Cameron’s pledge to lead the greenest government ever,” said the Friends of the Earth executive director, Andy Atkins.
In an evidence session a few days later, Cameron did his best to defend the claims he made on entering Number 10. The UK, he said, needs to be proud of its “most incredible set of green policies” that “very few countries come anywhere close to”. This is slightly different to what his next-door neighbour, Osborne, has said in the past. The green light – a week later – for fracking to resume exposed further faultlines in the government’s energy policy.
That there is conflict and confusion within Whitehall on energy and climate policies, as well as those on biodiversity and farming, is clear. So could it be left to UK PLC and the public to make the UK’s economy the greenest ever – starting with energy use? Energy efficiency has become a top business priority during the recession, while household bills are also rising. The trick will be turning desire and need into action. As Monbiot suggests, passive concerns must be translated into mass mobilisation.