Viewpoint: The world gets rough and tough – the right response to the UK’s energy policies

Viewpoint: The world gets rough and tough – the right response to the UK’s energy policies

Natalie Bennett

In Paris at a European Green Party conference on fossil fuel divestment in September,[1] I had the chance to ask its inspirational founder Bill McKibben of if he thought that campaigners for effective action to tackle climate change, and diplomats at the UN and in countries who are taking the issue seriously, needed to get “rougher and tougher” with states and other actors who aren’t doing the right thing.

I wasn’t entirely surprised when he said “yes”.

But what has been surprising, and pleasing is, that since then, we’ve seen a real move in this direction (although I’m not claiming any causal link).

The UN’s chief environment scientist, Professor Jacquie McGlade, in a highly unusual move, said Britain was sending a “perverse signal” by cutting support for renewables ahead of the Paris Climate Talks, in a long and strong-worded message about current policies.

Al Gore was similarly blunt in commenting on Britain’s climate change policies: Will our children ask, why didn’t you act?”

And the pope, while not directly addressing Britain, produced a landmark encyclical demanding urgent action on climate change, backed up by an unprecedented joint appeal from Catholic leaders for strong and fair Paris climate talks agreement in December.

Clearly, the sheer volume of destructive decisions and U-turns from a country that with the 2008 Climate Change Act had been seen as a world leader has pushed those who usually speak in the softest terms into far harder language. And the global failure to take overall effective action has produced a strong reaction in the Vatican.

This is something we should expect – should hope for – more of in the run-up to the Paris climate talks in December.

The level and strength of the criticism has risen significantly since I spoke at a conference at the University of Nottingham in September focusing on the first 100 days of the Cameron government. My particular focus was energy and environmental policy – and the list of policies heading in the wrong direction, at great speed, was a long one. Now the world’s started to notice.

I began my reflections in Nottingham by looking back to February, before the general election, when David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg jointly signed a pledge together promising to tackle climate change, acknowledging that policies to do that were essential for national prosperity and security.

Sadly, that now looks ironic.

First, climate change hardly featured in the election debate. In three and a half hours of leader debates, I was the only person to raise the issue – as I did in both debates. No other leader picked that up.

And since this government took power in May, there’s a long list of negative policy decisions that will have a massive impact not just on our ability to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, but also on our prosperity and wellbeing.

All we’ve had is some hot air from Secretary of State Amber Rudd promising the government plans to take the issue of climate change really seriously – and announce some policies in the autumn. I don’t know any analysts who are feeling any optimism about that announcement.

In its decisions so far, the Conservative government, which you might have expected to be at least try to appear business-friendly, has wrenched the rug out from under the feet of thousands of small businesses up and down the country.

Solar installers and home insulation firms have already started to fold, with many more expected to follow. Businesspeople who invested their money and time, trained staff, bought equipment, face ruin, another bust that’s entirely artificial.

And their workers of course also face a miserable Christmas. I was in a café in Sheffield when a plasterer, still in white-splattered blue overalls, came up to me to demand what was the government doing in cutting back home energy standards, when he’d worked hard to be able to meet them.

I didn’t have a response for him – for there is no logic in the decision to continue to build low-quality, hard-to-heat homes, when we could for a small additional initial cost save the future residents large ongoing outlays – and ensure that our new homes aren’t contributing to the pressing threat of climate change.

The industry had been preparing for the zero-carbon homes standard for years – then suddenly that standard was dropped.

As more than 200 businesses said in an open letter to the Chancellor: “This sudden u-turn has undermined industry confidence in the government and will now curtail investment in British innovation and manufacturing.”

That’s at the same time as plans to insulate existing homes – already grossly inadequate – have been cut back, sentencing fuel-poor households to another miserable winter – and given our figures on excess winter deaths, it’s not going too far to say causing deaths.

I was talking about these issues with a group of Scandinavian ambassadors (from a region where winters are _really_ cold), and one of them said to me, in a most-undiplomatic outburst: “I’ve never been so cold as I’ve been in Britain.”

We have a fuel poverty problem because an essential part of our national infrastructure – our homes – is inadequately built and insulated. The Energy Bill Revolution shows how we could fix that, and take energy policy in the right direction: lifting nine out of ten households out of fuel poverty, creating 100,000 jobs, and cutting our carbon emissions.

There’s even government opposition to on-shore wind, of which it had previously claimed to be a champion, with its possibility of re-employment for workers coming out of the oil and gas sector, and major export potential.

Past the 100-day point of the government, we saw a surprise decision against the proposed Navitus Bay off-shore wind scheme off the Dorset Coast, which could supply enough power for 700,000 homes.

We’ve also seen delays to the innovative Swansea Bay tidal power scheme, which had hoped to start construction in the spring, and there’s no news on the future of the renewable heat initiative, which was the Coalition government’s poster child for “greenest-ever government”.

Highest profile has been the cuts to the solar feed-in tariff. As I write we’ve yet to have the government response to a “consultation” and an industry proposal for a more gradual reduction in the tariff that could keep this buoyant industry afloat at a cost of just £1 a year more for each household’s bills to 2019.

What this government has been enthusiastic about is fracking – despite strong and growing public opposition, and the fact that no industry person I’ve met, whether pro- or anti-fracking, has thought it would be a significant part of Britain’s energy future, even were it to go ahead.

And of course about the part-Chinese, part-French £24-billion Hinkley C nuclear reactors. The “final investment decision” on this, the most expensive plant ever built, with guaranteed payment for power at double the current cost for 35 years, is expected by the end of this year, with power – theoretically, to be delivered 10 years after that.

It’s a decision that even pro-nuclear proponents have greeted with astonishment, given the design proposed is in deep trouble at two plants now under construction – both massively over-schedule and over-budget.

What’s notable when you make the comparison is that this government is firmly, resolutely against the democratic, decentralised, innovative 21st-century low-carbon electricity sources that operate (after they’re installed) on fuel that’s effectively free, while it is in favour of the multinational-controlled, centralised, high-carbon 20th-century energy schemes.

Community-owned energy schemes (the kind that provide more than half of Germany’s renewable energy) – which give communities a chance to decide how they want to power themselves, provide the potential for local financial returns to be made from local investment, and provide the control that can prevent local resistance to change – are likely to almost stop dead under the government’s plans.

And innovation – from the tidal scheme that could be the foundation for a whole new British-led industry going global, to the just-installed largest floating solar power project in Europe (on a reservoir near Manchester), to the new companies just getting started in home battery storage I talked to at Construction Week UK — are frozen out.

The rest of the world is powering ahead with renewable energy. Much of the rest of Europe is already far ahead of us with the quality of their housing stock. And we’re now turning away from renewables just as it becomes clear that they are the cost-effective, democratic, realistic alternative to fossil fuels – which are anyway unburnable if we’re to avoid castastrophic climate change.

This government is not only failing future generations with its energy policies, it is failing workers, businesses, households and communities today and tomorrow – locking them into an unsustainable, expensive, insecure energy future, denying them job opportunities, business opportunities, when it could be promoting innovation, opportunity and energy security for all of our futures.


[1] That campaign for institutions to divest from fossil fuel investments is going very well. The University of Surrey became the eighth university to sign up in the UK.


Natalie Bennett has been elected leader of the Green Party since September 2012. She was previously co-ordinator of Camden Greens and founding chair of the Green Party Women’s Group.

Image: Pixabay CC0 Public Domain