Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: Labour’s environmental rhetoric fails to convince

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 414, p57), in July 2009.

The songs of one’s youth stick in the memory. I have long remembered a line from a now forgotten song by the Incredible String Band. It was called The Hedgehog Song. It tells the story of a young man who is unsuccessful in love. A passing hedgehog offers him some advice with the refrain: “You know all the words and you sing all the notes, but you never quite learned the song.”

This could have been written as New Labour’s theme song on the environment. No one should doubt they mean well. Words there are in abundance – over a thousand pages worth in the latest outpouring from the energy and climate change department (DECC) on the low-carbon transition. No government anywhere has sung the climate song louder or longer than this one. Yet somehow it all fails to convince.

Take one example from the low-carbon transition. The rapid deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an imperative if we are to have the remotest chance of keeping the eventual rise in temperature below 2°C. It is an imperative because there is no politically credible pathway to global energy security that does not involve a massive increase in coal burn.

To his credit, Ed Miliband has understood this. He fought a ferocious battle, as much within his own department as with others, to secure the CCS demonstration plants now under consultation. He has also secured the promise of an Energy Bill in the autumn to give him powers to raise a levy to pay for them.

So far, so good. But there was a key word in the original announcement of this programme which stated the government would ‘facilitate’ the programme. You facilitate something that others do. If no proposals to build new coal plants are brought forward, then there is nothing to facilitate.

Some would see this as a welcome environmental victory. They would be mistaken. If no new coal plant is built it will not be out of concern for the environment, but because the muddle at the heart of the government’s energy policy remains unresolved despite, or maybe because, there have been four white papers, and as many energy ministers, in six years.

It is now clear that there is a direct conflict between the government’s obsession with new nuclear build and its commitment to get more than 30% of our electricity from renewables. This remains unresolved. Furthermore, since there is no realistic prospect of nuclear delivering electricity much before 2020, much of the gas generation currently in the pipeline will be built.

This does not leave much room for risky and expensive new coal build. Since most of our generators are foreign owned, these companies have many other opportunities to invest elsewhere. The government’s muddle is a strong encouragement for them to do so.

I’m not sure this matters as much for Britain’s energy security as many people think. We can manage perfectly well without new coal build if we have to. Potentially, it will make meeting the Climate Change Act targets a bit easier. But it does destroy any prospect of climate security for 60 million Britons since what we do here speaks more loudly abroad than anything we say.

Other nations looking at our tortuous performance on CCS can be forgiven for thinking we are not serious about it. If we do not rapidly deploy CCS, how can we expect China, India and others to do it? If they do not do so, and very rapidly, all prospect of staying below 2°C vanishes even if we meet every requirement set by the Climate Change Act.

It is not just on climate change that all the words and notes somehow fail to add up to an environmental song. Last month also saw the publication of the government’s future plans for Britain. Building Britain’s Future is a substantial document.

It runs to 276 pages and does something that is as welcome as it is unusual. It sets out in clear and accessible terms where the government intends to take us. And it does so in some detail for the coming year with a long list of key deliverables. Beyond that, there is, with decreasing detail, a vision of its priorities for the next decade.

Unfortunately, it is not an environmental vision. There are 59 key deliverables listed in seven sections for the coming year. There is no section on the environment. Well, you might think, that is because it is now integrated into every aspect of government policy so it need not have a section of its own. If so, there is no evidence of this in the list.

Of the 59 deliverables, only four can, by any stretch, be considered environmental deliverables. If something needs to be done to protect nature or the countryside from the development onslaught the new Planning Act will release, it has not yet occurred to the government.

Even more puzzling is the absence of any mention of the Energy Bill listed in the draft legislative programme but not in the key deliverables. Of course, this could simply be an oversight – incompetence rather than malice – the right hand not knowing the left. But it could also be because there is no serious intention it should receive Royal Assent before the general election next spring.

Looking further forward, the picture improves a little. Of the 42 deliverables listed out to 2020, perhaps eight could be considered to do with the environment. But of those, two would be a mixed blessing at best: the quarter of a million new homes a year, all of which will be carbon neutral by 2016; and the ten new ecotowns.

Albeit unintentionally, the document makes starkly clear the government’s priorities and where the environment fits into them. It ought to be a highly vulnerable flank in an election year but so far the opposition has failed to do much better with this song than the government.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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