Q&A: Tim Yeo
In the 1990s he was environment secretary. Now Tim Yeo is one of the Conservative Party’s most outspoken advocates for green policies. The chair of the energy and climate change select committee talks to Jess McCabe about the green deal, his party’s environmental record and being compared with the Ebola virus
You’ve been an MP since 1983, before our climate was on the agenda. Now you’re well known as one of the greenest members of your party. How did that happen?
One of the triggers was being asked to go to the Department of the Environment as a minister [in 1992, under John Major], and being given responsibility for climate change, a subject about which I knew pretty well nothing at the time.
I got knowledgeable about it in three months. In the early 1990s, it was a very specialist subject - if you raised it at a dinner party people looked at you a bit oddly. [But] I was persuaded by the science of it, completely. It was compelling then, and it’s even more compelling now.
You’ve been criticised for advocating green policies that you might benefit from thanks to green business interests [Mr Yeo is chair of biofuel company TMO Renewables]. Are those criticisms merited?
I do get frustrated when people say, ‘he’s just saying this green stuff in order to promote his businesses’, because the oldest business interest is five years old and no one who’s looked at what I’ve been saying for 20 years can possibly say I’ve changed my views because of that.
Doesn’t it risk undermining your argument?
The pieces I’ve read have not been in The Guardian or the Financial Times, they’ve come from journalists who have very, very strong views of their own. I think they’re looking at ways to undermine my credibility - they can see I’m a rather influential and persuasive advocate of greener policies.
Some of the criticism has been severe, with the Telegraph comparing you with the Ebola virus.
There’s a real emotive issue around wind farms, and onshore wind farms in particular. I absolutely respect the right of people to say no, [wind farms are] too intrusive visually, or the noise is a problem, but I think we should try to persuade more people of the merits of onshore wind because it is good value. I’ve been amazed at the emotional reaction these views produce - quite hysterical, sometimes. I’ve had some obscene emails.
On the other hand, some green activists have criticised you for changing your mind and supporting a third runway at Heathrow.
There’s a very simple reason - now that aviation emissions are within the European Union [Emissions Trading System] cap, we can build 20 runways at Heathrow and it wouldn’t increase aviation emissions, so the climate reasons against a third runway are gone.
I believe very strongly in the Darwin dictum that the species that survive are not those that are strong, or even intelligent, but those that are adaptable. I’d rather be one of the survivors than one of the dinosaurs.
The energy and climate change select committee’s reports have at times been quite critical of government policy. Do you feel like it’s having much influence?
I keep being told that it is.
There is concern about the Treasury curtailing green policies. Do you agree government support has been falling away?
I think David Cameron remains committed. I think most of the ministers who worked at the Department of Energy and Climate Change remain committed. It’s always a bit harder with the other departments. The Communities and Local Government department - not really sure. Transport - usually a bit of a source of resistance, those are two quite significant players.
On the other hand, you’ve got the Foreign Office which exerts more pressure on the green agenda now. It’s a bit of a mixed picture, but I do accept that more government departments could be more wholehearted.
What would you say to social landlords which are unsure if they should invest in going green as a result of changes in policy on solar tariffs and so on?
What we need to do is try to be consistent in the policy, set a long-term framework, try to get bipartisan support for it, to let them know that, even if there’s a change in government, policies will be maintained.
Isn’t that the opposite of what’s happened?
It is. There have been some mistakes made. I’m hoping once the Energy Bill is through, there will be a framework that’s reasonably permanent.
Overall, are you worried that climate change is falling down the political agenda?
Because the economy is in such difficult conditions, it’s frustrating that the merits of the green agenda have become rather obscured. In the past, you’ve had great issues about war, empire and religion. But… a world that’s going to have 9 billion people by the middle of the century, how we manage that without depleting the natural resources irreplaceably is a big, big challenge. And the longer we put off addressing it, the more difficult it’s going to be.
What do you think of the green deal?
It’s a really bold and imaginative vision to try to get the whole country, the whole built environment, [to be] more energy efficient. I think there are some anxieties about how fast it’s going, or rather how slowly it’s going…we’ve got some selling to do, and it’s important the early experiences of the green deal should be good ones, not bad ones.
Is there a risk the green deal could be ditched by the government?
I don’t think it would be abandoned before the general election. It’s such a key part of the coalition’s platform. I remember saying to the prime minister, one of the ways the government will be judged on whether it achieves its goal of becoming the greenest ever is how much progress will be made on the green deal.
How many homes will have benefited from the green deal by the time the election comes? Unless it’s a decent, substantial number, people will say ‘oh well, the green deal, that didn’t go very far’.
Do you still support the idea of personal carbon trading?
I do. Most forms of tax or market instrument are regressive. If you have a properly designed system of personal carbon trading [under which households would have an emissions allowance and could buy carbon credits from others who use less energy], you’d say to someone this is a reasonable allowance for a family of four. Poorer people [who don’t use their allowance] would actually get a reward. [But] no one supports me on that. Everyone’s against it.