Green policies lack detail but some experts detect 'seismic shift' in new era of regulations, sanctions and subsidies•
guardian.co.uk, Monday 12 April 2010 19.00 BST
Disappointment greeted the Labour environment manifesto today as experts from all quarters suggested there was nothing new, it was too cautious about cutting climate change emissions, and there was not enough detail about policies they liked.
Buried in section 8 of the party's manifesto, however, was a radical statement which might also herald a very different time ahead if Labour is elected to government for a fourth term.
Introducing the Green Growth chapter, it says: "Only active governments can shape markets to prioritise green growth and job creation. Environmental sustainability cannot be left to individuals and businesses acting alone."
Where for so long Labour policy has focused on targets, encouragement and partnerships; this appears to herald a new era of firm rules, limits and sanctions; what Ed Matthew, who runs Transform UK, a group working on the UK's shift to a low carbon economy, calls a "seismic shift".
To encourage more low carbon energy, for example, Matthew said government needed to offer more subsidies, grants and low interest loans to the new companies.
"After 13 years they have finally understood that they can't create a low carbon, secure energy supply in this country without some more intervention," said Matthew. "[We need] certainty for investors so they shift their money from high to low carbon energy services. They need that support to get off the ground, but eventually they'll stand on their own and end up cheaper than the fossil fuel industries."
Such a fundamental shift in policy would open up the prospect of a battle of ideas between the main parties on the environment. Liberal Democrats have already - more overtly - embraced the intervention agenda; Conservatives have taken more cautious steps, advocating new financial institutions like the Green Investment Bank and a feed-in-tariff for big renewable energy schemes, but might not be willing to go this way for industrial policy, said Matthew.
Supporters of this approach point to the global success stories in creating green industries: China, South Korea and Germany have all been more interventionist.
"Regulation has been such a dirty word for 13 years for Labour," added Matthew. "It's about realising regulation isn't red tape: regulation is the building blocks on which our society is built, if you get it right it's great for the economy and, critically, for the environment."
Clues as to how brave Labour would be in office were mixed: the manifesto repeated an early suggestion that the party would ban many items from landfill in future, and promised that if the European Commission did not ban illegally logged timber, the UK would do so unilaterally. However, it continued to say that better food labelling would be designed "with" (although they presumably mean "by") the food industry and retailers, and that it wanted to introduce more competition into the energy market, something which could make it harder, not easier, to meet climate and security targets.
There were few new ideas in the manifesto, though many of the existing proposals are either fairly recent (local communities to share in renewable power profits) or very long term (400,000 new green jobs).
One new initiative is the promise to create more protected areas, and forest and woodland, as well as to "sustain" the amount of greenbelt land. Protected areas will be especially picked to create wildlife "corridors" along which species can migrate as they adapt to climate change, something that conservationists have long been asking for.
The party also tantalisingly promised a new "framework" for land use, to balance the competing demands of housing and development, wildlife and climate change, and food security. However there was no detail about what this would be, or how it would be determined.