Green Scene

SPEECHES HAVE been the talk of the town in the environmental world recently. On the one hand we’ve had the prime minister’s first speech on green issues. On the other, the Queen set out the government’s legislative agenda for the 2012-2013 parliamentary session. Both have divided opinion on their relative environmental merits.

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David Cameron was perhaps on a losing wicket before he even started: at the last minute the speech was downgraded from a keynote address to some opening remarks. Given that this was the first time he’d spoken on the subject in the two years since walking into Number 10, the environmental lobby were, understandably, a little vexed. After all, back in 2010 Cameron had declared this would be the “greenest government ever”. Greenwash would be more apt. That claim will surely continue to haunt him – perhaps not to the extent of ex-BP chief Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back” in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but you wonder if he regrets saying it.


But does he regret his speech? Perhaps not. Some saw it as a huge success. Grant Thornton’s head of energy, environment and sustainability said the PM had “pulled a rabbit out of the hat” and the speech confirmed that the government “remains committed to a diversified low-carbon energy mix”.


In his address to energy ministers from 23 leading economies, Cameron explained that “Britain has gone from virtually no capacity for renewables, to seeing them provide almost 10% of our total electricity needs last year.” He added: “Our commitment and investment in renewable energy has helped to make renewable energy possible. Now we have a different challenge. We need to make it financially sustainable.”


Indeed. This is where Cameron’s neighbour on Downing Street, the chancellor, George Osborne, sees the arguments falling apart. He has his very own green faux pas: last year he claimed: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”. The environmental lobby is getting a little tired of it all – not least the organisation that helped relaunch the blue party as green. The WWF organised “that” husky photoshoot (the one in which Cameron posed on the ice on the way to visiting a melting glacier). The Guardian’s Juliette Jowitt pointed out that one of Cameron’s allies had suggested the pictures were “worth a thousand speeches”. Perhaps that’s why the green issue speeches have totalled one since then.


WWF’s chief executive, David Nussbaum, summed it all up when he said: “Back in 2006 we in WWF were really inspired by David Cameron’s commitment to environmental issues in opposition, and struck by his assertion that we couldn’t abandon environmental concerns due to austerity. Six years on we’re still waiting for a major speech on the environment from David Cameron, but this wasn’t it.”


Did the Queen do any better? It’s not easy to critique Her Majesty, but the content of the speech seems to have evoked reserved appreciation. The speech confirmed a wide- ranging energy bill would be put before Parliament in the next 12 months that will “propose reform of the electricity market to deliver secure, clean and affordable electricity, and ensure prices are fair”. There was also mention of a draft water bill and the launch of the Green Investment Bank.


As many suggested: the devil will be in the detail and the timing. So the Queen may have done a better job than thePrime Minister. But which of them has the lowest carbon footprint? The chances are that David and Elizabeth wouldn’t have to live within the constraints of personal carbon allowances – but many of us might. The idea of carbon GDA, to guide us on environmental choices as has been the case with nutritional labelling, was recently tested by Coca-Cola and the Carbon Trust. Two dozen consumers were given a carbon allowance of 20kg of CO2 a day and asked to record everything they did, ate, drank and used.


The results were positive, with CO2 cut by a couple of kilos – but no more. Those involved made the easy choices, the survey concluded, but got anxious when asked to go a little further and compromise on things like food and drink. However, the trial did open the eyes of the guinea pigs to some of the environmental issues related to food and drink consumption, especially the impact of meat (see page 16). Coke said the paper shows how “personal carbon allowances could work in practice”.


Fellow brand behemoth Nike is also bidding for a place as environmental pioneer with an interactive sustainability report allowing customers to design a pair of trainers using greener materials. The idea, according to an interview on, is to bring “all this geeky stuff into real speak”. Customers will be able to play around with designs so they get an idea of what the company is doing to reduce its impacts (Nike’s long-term strategic vision is to “decouple profitable growth from constrained resources”). Indeed, its own designers follow a “considered index” complete with 75,000 different materials to help reduce waste and detoxify the manufacturing process.


And where better to use this pair of trainers than an eco-gym? The Great Outdoor Gym company is piloting a number of machines in Hull, such as bikes and cross trainers, that help people pump electricity rather than iron. The company hopes to harness the power of 2.5m people within five years – and there could be no better time to start than an Olympic year.