I often wonder whether, in all the shock and awe of the last couple of months, Liberal Democrats have grasped fully one of the biggest potential “wins” from the coalition government.
Surely, we should be pinning our hopes on the environmental agenda. The Liberal Democrats can now drive faster progress towards a zero carbon Britain.
The point is well made in an article for The Guardian by Matthew Spencer, the new head of Green Alliance. He says that the delivery of environmental policies is a major test - and a major opportunity - for the coalition government. He points out there was little difference on green issues between the Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos and argues that the need to bring down the public deficit will force the coalition to use regulation to achieve its environmental goals.
Spencer picks up on some the implications for the Liberal Democrats.
Along with civil liberties and electoral reform, the environment is central to the Liberal Democrats' sense of political identity. As one Lib Dem insider recently told me: "If we can't make progress on green issues it wouldn't have been worth joining the coalition." It's an agenda that Nick Clegg will hope to use to bind the Lib Dem base into the coalition over coming months.
Being the greenest government ever may not seem like a big achievement given the patchy performance of previous administrations, but for the coalition it will be a major test. If they can't achieve rapid progress on green issues their legitimacy will fade in the eyes of Liberal Democrats supporters and those who voted Conservative in the belief that it was a reformed, modern party. If they do manage to deliver on their commitments it will be a badge of honour for the new politics of Cameron and Clegg.
There is another, important reason that the Lib Dems can and should deliver for the environment. The party has cornered many of the relevant jobs in government.
Let's start with the obvious one: the Lib Dem secretary for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, has his capable hands on the levers for regulating the electricity generation sector, which accounts for 37% of the UK’s CO2 emissions. He is also responsible for energy efficiency policies and for this country’s efforts to shape EU energy and climate change policy.
The Lib Dem BIS secretary, Vince Cable, leads the department that is best placed to provide this country’s businesses with the certainty they need to invest in low carbon, sustainable prosperity and enable them to make the best of the opportunities offered by the £3 trillion global market for environmental goods and services. Vince alluded to this in his first major policy speech, on 3 June.
The debate about industrial policy always raises the spectre of ‘picking winners’. But in a globalised economy its time to move this debate on a bit – be clear about what this means. Because in some ways we have to be picking winners . . .
. . . What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to micromanage the economy at the level of individual companies or so-called national champions: trying to supercede the judgement of markets.
The green technology revolution is a good example, and a potential source of huge opportunity for Britain. The Government is, and should, support development in a variety of renewable energy technologies and a variety of environmentally friendly vehicles – it does not have to be prescriptive.
Liberal Democrats in other departments can also make a difference. Norman Baker, a transport minister, is responsible for regional and local transport, buses, walking and cycling and alternatives to travel. The Committee on Climate Change has found that "smarter choices" - influencing people's travel behaviour towards more sustainable options - offer significant low-cost potential for reducing transport emissions.
Andrew Stunell, a communities minister, has building regulations as part of his remit. That may sound a little dry, but 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions come from energy consumed in buildings. The Carbon Trust has shown that tighter Building Regulations can be part of a strategy to reduce the carbon footprint of non-domestic buildings by more than one third by 2020.
No, these ministers will not be able to stop climate change on their own. Important as they are, their roles cannot provide the cross-departmental, multi-faceted approach that is needed to drive the transition to a zero-carbon economy.
But Liberal Democrat ministers now have an historic opportunity to join forces, link together the policies that they control or influence and ensure more rapid progress towards the party’s goal of a zero carbon Britain.
That’s a very good reason for the party to be in the coalition. It’s also one of the best ways that I can see of judging the Liberal Democrats’ effectiveness in government.