Chris Huhne answers GLD questions
Chris Huhne's green platform
Here are Chris Huhne's replies in full to our nine questions, the same questions we have put to all the candidates.
1. The Government has just launched its Energy Review. Are you personally for or against the building of additional nuclear capacity, and why?
I am against the building of additional nuclear capacity, because the risks and hence costs of the technology are too high. Before the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, private investors were prepared to invest in nuclear power plants because they thought that they could be made profitable. Since those accidents, no nuclear plant has been built anywhere in the world without lashings of government subsidy to underwrite the decommissioning costs or the problem of waste storage.
Yet there are few sensible grounds for such subsidy, in an industry with a forty year track record. Normally, subsidies are justified for young technologies and industries like wind, solar and tidal power that are still reaching maturity, mass production and economies of scale, at which point they should be able to fend for themselves.
Nuclear is not an infant industry, but a middle aged one whose problems and hidden costs are now clearly understood. We face big enough costs for clearing up our existing nuclear power stations, without incurring more. Sweden has shown the way by setting out a plan for an oil and gas free future without nuclear that stresses energy-saving and renewables generation.
2. Can green taxation work? And should the party support personal carbon allowances?
Green taxation can work, and I am very much in favour of it. The problem is that the Labour government has been going backwards: all the green taxes (fuel duty, climate change levy, aggregates levy, landfill tax and so on) raised a peak of 3.6 per cent of national income in 1999 and 2000, and have since been falling to just 3 per cent of national income, which is even lower than the level inherited from the Tories in 1997.
As a result, we are going backwards on our targets for greenhouse gases, even though those targets were relatively unambitious. The tax system changes prices, and prices change behaviour by providing people with the incentive to save fossil fuels in the way that they best determine for themselves. The advantage of the price mechanism against regulation in this respect is that people make their own choices about what they see as key uses of fossil fuels, rather than having those choices imposed by someone else.
During this campaign, I have advocated a more aggressive use of green taxes to help change behaviour, while using the money raised to help those at the bottom of the income distribution where they are outrageously paying a higher proportion of their income in taxes of all kinds than those at the top. I very much hope that the Lib Dem Tax commission chaired by Mike Williams will take up the idea of a switch from personal income tax to taxes on environmental bads in the proposals that it brings forward for our autumn conference.
The reason why I favour green taxes is precisely because they are tried and tested and simple to administer, so that they can have a clear impact in the short term whereas many other interesting proposals would require major development of new technology to become effective. In principle, I can see the merits of personal carbon allowances and also of a national road charging scheme, but in practice we are some way off being able to implement either in a way that helps to change behaviour in order to make our carbon emissions consistent with a sustainable world for our children. Personal carbon allowances are particularly attractive because they would allow low users to sell their surplus to other, providing additional incentives.
3. Predicted regional airport expansion could blow a large hole in our Kyoto targets. How would you convince the public that cheap air travel is unsustainable?
We need to make people aware that if air travel continues to expand - with existing technologies - at its present rate, it will use up the entirety of our limits on carbon emissions under the Kyoto protocol leaving nothing for home heating or surface travel. Therefore air travel has to be brought within the overall framework of sustainability, and I do not believe that we can wait for the EU's emissions trading scheme to kick off as a viable cap on air travel emissions.
In the short run, the real issue with air travel is simply that its fuel use is completely untaxed, unlike almost any other mode of transport. I understand the difficulties of introducing an aviation fuel tax in one country - people would simply fly long distances from nearby countries that did not levy a fuel tax - so that it is crucial that this issue is tackled at European level, and I look forward to the proposals due from the EU Commission this summer.
However, we can do more to change incentives at national level such as through restructuring the air passenger duty so that it applies to the capacity of the plane rather than the number of passengers carried. At present, a scheduled business flight that is only a quarter full pollutes as much as a full cheap flight, yet pays only a quarter of the air passenger duty. It is by changing the overall incentives that we will change behaviour, including providing aircraft manufacturers with a much greater incentive to fuel economy.
The increased fuel economy in taxed modes of transport (like cars) has been much greater over the last twenty years. In our policy on air travel, it makes sense to concentrate on the underlying problem of polluting flights rather than the places from which they take off. If regional airports take business away from the big hubs, that should be a net gain as people have to travel less far to reach them, and they also overfly fewer people.
4. Despite our excellent record on national campaigns there is concern that some Liberal Democrat-controlled local authorities are not yet as green as they should be in practice. What will you do to change this?
I am lucky in that our Lib Dem group that controls Eastleigh borough has been a pioneer on green issues for many years, and now has one of the best recycling rates in the country. Our councillors have also been innovative in promoting awareness of green issues, so that we have a wind-turbine in one of our country parks that local schools can visit to see renewables at work.
There is always more to do, and also much that can be done to spread best practice though our Local Government Association group and indeed the LGA itself. It would be useful if some of our leading green thinkers in local government could pull together a document on best practice, and on their own experience at the sharp end, as this might encourage some groups that have been more wary of taking the plunge. I also think there is a role for Green Liberal Democrats in proselytising to councils. I will back up these efforts by stressing the importance of setting the pace as a party, and practising what we preach in local government.
5. South Central Region adopted a motion in 2004 requesting all local parties and Liberal Democrat council groups adopt the use of Fairtrade products and encourage their communities to work towards Fairtrade status. Should this become party policy nationally?
I welcome my own party region's initiative on Fairtrade, which is an excellent scheme to ensure that developing world farmers and businesses get more of the revenue generated by their products. I would certainly support a motion to the same effect that came before the federal party. In my experience, Fairtrade products are not just fairer for the producers, but Fairtrade food usually tastes better too!
6. Wildlife biodiversity is under great threat globally and in the UK. What should this party do to ensure native wildlife is protected more effectively in the UK?
First, there is an international dimension. We need to tougher in supporting the international conventions in place to protect endangered species by clamping down on trade in products derived from them, such as whale blubber and tusk ivory. There is more to do on illegal logging, which is still a serious problem in both Brazil and Indonesia to name but two developing countries. The loss of rainforest is not just a terrible danger for climate change, but it is also chopping away at the habitat necessary for bio-diversity in many tropical countries. I would like to see trading standards officers take a more pro-active role in checking the origin of tropical hardwood as a practical way of supporting international efforts to encourage renewable timber resources.
Within Britain, there is a strong case for an independent agency to champion the natural environment in a way that the Environment Agency - concerned mainly with water use and flooding - does not. It should have responsibility for monitoring habitats important to wildlife diversity, and for protecting them against development. As president of ALTER, the land value tax campaign in the party, I have also long been associated with trying to reduce the spread of urban communities on greenfield sites by encouraging the renewal of traditional urban communities. By changing incentives so that developers pay no more tax if they develop a site to the full potential outlined by planners, we can both renew urban areas and reduce the pressure on rural ones.
7. Should this country recycle more, or give up and produce energy from waste?
We have an appalling record on waste recycling: we are one of the least effective countries of the old 15 member states of the European Union in recycling (we do not yet have the figures on the new 10 member states), and other countries like the Netherlands have shown how much more effective we can be. There is also a massive discrepancy between best practice and worst practice within the UK, so we need to raise our game. So we must recycle much more, but it is not contradictory to say that we can also generate energy from waste through clean technologies.
8. Although there is a clear demand for new homes in the UK, John Prescott stands accused of trying to concrete over the South East. Do you think the Labour Government's policy is sustainable, and what should be the Liberal Democrat stance on this issue?
Labour's policy is short-sighted and involves little more than taking the line of least resistance on some major social decisions that should be made explicit. Our land use needs to shift dramatically towards the regeneration of existing urban areas rather than the extension into greenfields.
We need to make much more of our existing policies on this: a localised business rate set by councils should cover not just business premises, but also land held vacant by both businesses and individuals (including developers' landbanks). By basing the business rate on the site value, there would be no increase in rates paid through development, encouraging more intensive and natural development within the existing urban footprint.
Our proposal for equalising the VAT on renovations and new build is also essential: too many schemes such as the Withington hospital conversion have foundered because the developer would find it cheaper to demolish and rebuild rather than renew, which is crazy. Local authorities should have far more control over development in their own areas so that they are responsive to local concerns - particularly the need for social housing - but should also be able to capture the increased revenue from new and renovated building so that they can invest in associated infrastructure.
Finally, we need to revive the debate about regional policy so that there is a much greater stress on encouraging regions like the North East to succeed - and to retain their populations and hence the use of infrastructure that is already in place - and thereby reduce the pressure for population growth in the south of England.
9. Some say the Liberal Democrat 'green thread' is wearing thin. What should this party do to stay at least three steps ahead of David Cameron on green issues and what weaknesses in current Liberal Democrat environmental policy should be addressed before the next General Election?
I absolutely reject this. We are rightly seen as the most green of all the major parties, with a proud record on environmental legislation both here and in the European Parliament. We must stay three steps ahead of David Cameron by pointing out his own appalling track record (voting against the climate change levy, for example) and that of his party (found to be the least green party in the whole of the European Union by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth when they analysed European Parliament votes).
The other way we must stay ahead is by pointing out how we would achieve our objectives, not just why we would want to do so. That is why I have set out my proposals for green taxes in this campaign, as it challenges both Labour and the Tories either to match us or to put forward alternative ways of achieving the same ends. We have to hold their feet to the fire with practical proposals that will work, and tell voters to judge politicians by what they do and not what they say.
This is, by the way, exactly what we did when we argued in the nineties that we needed a big increase in spending on health and education, and we were the only party honest enough to say that taxes would have to rise to pay for it. The voters know that you do not get something for nothing, and that includes on the green agenda. We need to be hard-nosed and hard-edged if we are to change the debate and our behaviour.