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Peter Ainsworth: Going green - It's like a huge game of snakes and ladders

Tonight, along with thousands of others in London, I'm turning the lights off in my house for an hour.

Congratulations to Capital Radio for staging the Lights Out London event.

I know it's just a gesture. But it's a good one - even if it does lead to a baby boom next March; and the fact that so many people and businesses are responding to the call tells us just how far we have all come in recognising the need to save energy and fight climate change.

They are even switching the lights out in Parliament. But don't get too excited; they will be back on again on Friday.

Five years ago, anyone who had suggested such an idea would have been dismissed as a crank.

It's clear evidence that the public are on the case and willing to do their bit to save energy and help keep the planet habitable.

But the fact is that it will take more than the enthusiasm of the British public if we are to shift to a low carbon economy in time to stave off the challenge of climate change.

For the UK, the EU target of achieving 20% of our energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 is daunting given where we are today..

At present, just 2% of the UK's energy is from renewable sources.

Furthermore, we will need to source renewable energy - not merely renewable electricity.

The Government's energy strategy is heavily weighted towards electricity.

Electricity and energy are not the same thing.

Take, for example, the Energy White Paper's focus on Nuclear power.

Tony Blair says "If we want to reduce C02 emissions we have got to put the issue of nuclear power on the agenda".

Nuclear power stations produce electricity.

Electricity accounts for 18% of the UK's total energy consumption.

Nuclear power provides just 3.6% of the UK's total energy supply. What about the other 96.4%?!

Even if we replaced every ageing nuclear power station with another one, the impact on our carbon emissions would be negligible.

I make no judgment on the merits or otherwise of nuclear power, though it may be worth observing that there may be rather cheaper ways - energy efficiency, for example - of saving 3.6% of our carbon based energy use.

I only say that if we are to begin in earnest to cut our C02 emissions it would help if we didn't distort the facts at the outset.

We must look beyond electricity generation.

To meet the EU target, we need to re-orientate our entire economy, from the way we heat our water through to the way we power our homes and transport.

With that in mind, just how radical can - and should - the British public be? How can we convince the British public to embrace everything from better insulation, to CHP boilers, to ground source heat pumps?

We can't expect the public to be radical if the Government is half-hearted and confused.

As I have said, the good news is that the British public wants to go green.

According to a poll conducted by the Energy Savings Trust in April of this year, 80% of the public believe that climate change is having a serious impact on the UK, and 70% of people actively want to help tackle it.

Even Coronation Street now has a climate change story line - or so I am reliably informed.

Now, however, the bad news.

There is a real problem in translating public interest into sustained individual action.

Just 38% of those surveyed have changed their lives to tackle climate change.

And only 4% of those surveyed have changed their lives dramatically.

DEFRA claims the gap between what people want to do and what they actually do is down to a lack of information. This week, for example, David Miliband released an on line carbon calculator, along with a list of easy green wins.

Education is of course critical to encouraging socially responsibly behaviour, from turning out lights through to trying to source local food.

However, raw information of the type DEFRA is offering is not thin on the ground.

Amazon currently sells 163 books with "how to save the planet" in the title.

Google lists 1,400,000 sites which mention, or have links to, a carbon calculator.

And almost every glossy Sunday supplement for the past year has had an eco feature or five.

The problem is not too little information. In fact, it may be too much….

It's like a huge game of snakes and ladders.

Suppose you are not part of the 62% who have so far elected to do nothing. You roll the green dice and begin the journey.

Happily, you land on the square called An Inconvenient Truth. It's a great ladder. Get to the top, hit a shameful Channel 4 documentary called The Great Global Warming Swindle, and for many it's back to square one.

Maybe you are worried about the emissions from your car? Land on biofuels and up you go.

But a couple of throws later, you hit a snake in the shape of the decimated Rainforest and worries about food security. Down you go.

Or perhaps you want to cut down on electricity use? Land on the ladder of the energy efficient bulb.

Unfortunately, as soon as you've climbed it you hit a snake called high levels of mercury.

So, what do you decide to do? The answer, all too often, is: nothing.

Too many choices lead to no choice at all. Confusion ends in paralysis.

The problem of information overload is compounded by the absence of a clear, consistent and coherent approach by Government which enables people to make rational choices.

The Government has created its own version of snakes and ladders.

A homeowner, for example, may have heard that solar electricity produces some of the best carbon savings on the market. They may also have heard that there are grants available for installing solar panels.

But all too often, the process of negotiating the grants system is a nightmare as any poor punter who has faced the Low Carbon Buildings Programme can testify.

Far from supporting nascent technologies, Government intervention can actually undermine industry confidence. Since the Budget in March there has been a 90% drop in the amount of money paid out to support Solar PV schemes and a the number of people applying for help has dropped by two-thirds.

Or perhaps a driver may have heard that converting his car to LPG is a good way to slash emissions? But no sooner has he paid the £1,500 to get the work done than the fuel differential is taken away and he is left out of pocket.

Or, again, the Government tells us that climate change is the greatest threat we face, puts it at the top of its international agenda, and then insists on pursuing a policy of massively increasing airport capacity. What is anyone to make of that?

So although there is a groundswell of interest in going green, people often find it hard to turn interest into action because they are faced with incoherent stop-start Government initiatives; confusion and contradiction.

Far too frequently, Government ladders are pulled before they have even been extended.

This scares off not just consumers but investors and business as well. It is a recipe for doing nothing, and it explains why so little has been done and why we have so far to go.

The answer is straightforward, although it is not, admittedly, the stuff of colour supplement guides to green living.

It is to establish a realistic price for carbon across the economy.

There are several ways to approach this.

First, it can be done through tax; and we have said that we want to replace the Climate Change Levy with a Carbon Levy which does what it says on the label.

George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor has said that we want to shift the burden of tax onto activities which cause climate change and away from things that don't.

He has also made it clear that we are not thinking of extra taxation but of replacement taxes.

We are taxed enough already. It's just the wrong kind of tax.

Secondly, there's regulation.

It may seem counter-intuitive for a Conservative to talk about tax and regulation, but it isn't.

Since the days of Disraeli, Conservatives have never been afraid to intervene where market failure has threatened human health, social order or the natural environment.

Climate Change threatens all three.

Conservative thinking since the 18th century has been infused with a deep sense of inter-generational responsibility. An understanding of what we owe to the past and of what the present owes to future. Climate Change involves us shouldering our inherited responsibilities and taking action now for the sake of generations to come.

And thirdly, there's harnessing the power of markets to deliver positive change. That's why we need to pursue emissions trading as the best - possibly the only - global solution to the problem. And without a global solution there will be no solution at all. That is the really hard part.

We expect to use aspects of all three of these mechanisms, in a coherent, mutually reinforcing way, to ensure that, eventually, the price of carbon is made clear wherever that carbon may be.

Only by establishing and embedding a price for carbon will we create the rational context needed to inform all government and individual choices and actions.

Only by doing this, will we enable the free market to do what it does best: send price signals which guide business, consumer and Government behaviour.

By definition, this will make renewable energy more affordable and more attractive. The greenest sources of energy will, over time, become the cheapest sources of energy.

In summary, then, I do not at all belittle the efforts that many people are making to reduce their impact on the environment; and I don't knock the Government's efforts to provide information and advice. We are, after all, all in this together.

But in the absence of a coherent, over-arching strategy to ensure that the true price of our behaviour is paid up front and not left to our children and grandchildren to pick up, we are really only tinkering at the edges.

Most people want to do the right thing. So, instead of asking what the public can do, or should be doing, we need to look at what they can't do - and why they can't.

In the fight against climate change, we will need both the enterprise, ingenuity and investment power of the business community, and the good will and sense of social responsibility of our citizens.

The government's job is to liberate them from the bond of uncertainty that is the greatest enemy of turning interest into action.

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