Carbon Targets Good, Spending Targets Bad?

The debate over green policies has taken an interesting turn today. For years now the fundamental assumption of green policy making has been that the only possibility is charging people more, taxing people more and restricting people's behaviour more. The announcement from the Tories, though, threatens that consensus.


They have apparently realised that with the population suffering such high taxation and the economy in recession, high cost greenery is not a great vote winner. Instead, they have tied two new policies to saving money, which is the only way to get public support for them.


First up is a new direction on recycling. The idea is that the carrot is preferable to the stick, and so people who recycle more will be rewarded with shopping vouchers - a policy pioneered by Windsor & Maidenhead council.


This is both more effective than coercion and more fair to people. If you recycle, then you save the council money on landfill tax, so it's only right that you are given that money back. Of course, we'd prefer it to be cash rebates or tax cuts to allow people to spend the money as they wish but this is infinitely better than the draconian fines and inspections of your kitchen bin which has been the alternative thus far.


Second is a more central policy: Whitehall departments must cut their carbon emissions by 10% and save money doing so, or face funding cuts. They intend the scheme to reduce the cost of Whitehall by £300 million, which would be very welcome - and suggests that it should be done through fewer car journeys and energy saving rather than expensive offsetting.


This leaves aside the need for spending cuts per se, but bluntly I'd rather have lower spending wrapped in a green flag than higher taxes in the same clothing.


The Government's reaction to this has been fascinating. While many Tory thinkers have urged avoiding setting out spending cuts lest Labour nick them, the opposite has happened. They are trying to rubbish the idea, despite the green agenda which they are normally so enthusiastic about and the obvious popularity of achieving cheaper Whitehall departments.


Particularly remarkable was Ed Miliband's attack on the BBC News Channel a few minutes ago. His critique was that there was no point just setting a target without specific, centralised planning of how to do it. We shouldn't be surprised that he loves the idea of a central plan so much - centralisation does, after all, characterise this Government's every policy. But general targets? Why is the idea so bad when it comes to cutting spending in a few departments over one year, but absolutely ideal for...erm...Ed Miliband's Climate Change Act that mandated an 80% cut in emissions for the whole economy by 2050?

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