Saturday, May 1, 2010

All change?

The election is upon us. In terms of environmental politics, is there anything to choose between the reds and the blues – and the rest?

While of course there are many other key policy issues, their positions on renewables are significant. Both Labour and Tories profess strong support. As a litmus test of green orientation, a survey, carried out by ComRes for RenewableUK, the wind and marine energy trade body, found that only 7 per cent of the Tory candidates agreed strongly with the statement “expansion of onshore wind [farms] is essential if the UK is to deliver on its renewable energy targets”. The statement was strongly supported by 44 per cent of Labour candidates and 71 per cent of Liberal Democrat candidates. A total of 54 per cent of Conservative hopefuls, but no Labour candidates, disagreed with the statement. Among Liberal Democrats, 14 per cent disagreed.

Labour has a quite strong programme of renewable energy support- nowhere near enough of course and based still on competitive market principles via the lamentable Renewables Obligation/ROC trading system. Nevertheless it has managed to attract promises of inward investment from companies like Siemens, GE, and Mitsubishi, which should create several thousand new jobs soon in what could be an expanding offshore wind energy industry.

But Labour also has an increasing commitment to nuclear power, which somehow it says is going to expand without direct subsidies. There was talk of adjusting the carbon market to make nuclear economics look better, but maintaining a ‘floor price’ for carbon could require taxpayer back up- a subsidy. In practice though they don’t actually seem to mind too much about subsidies as long as they are very indirect- they offered an £80m loan to help a Sheffield steel company to link into the nuclear supply chain, and £20m for a ‘Nuclear Centre of Excellence’ along with ‘up to £15m’ for a ‘Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre’.

In the run up to the election, the Conservatives published a new energy policy statement- ‘Rebuilding Security’ which similarly backed renewables and nuclear. It’s not clear just how much they actually will support renewables- many Tories are part of the anti wind lobby. However they do seem keen on marine renewables. Britain ‘ruling the waves’ may figure somewhere here, even if in reality it will mainly be Scotland, and the SNP is big on that!

Like Labour, the Tories say they will not provide any direct cash for nuclear. Even so, they want nuclear to expand rapidly- and like Labour saw a floor price for carbon as one way ahead. Or perhaps a revision of Labours Climate Change Levy on large energy users - converting it to a new energy supplier tax. Depending on how it was done that might put electricity prices up by 18%.

In the pre-election ‘wash up’ Labour just managed to squeeze through another levy- to support Carbon Capture and Storage projects. That could also put electricity bills up. So will its new Feed In Tariff system for small renewable projects – DECC admits it will cost consumers £3.1 billion to 2020 for a 2% increase in renewables. Bills will rise even more if the Tories carry out their plan to replace Labours expensive Renewables Obligation with an expanded Feed In Tariff system for all new renewables. A FiT may well be the best way forward (it will be cheaper than the RO), but the commitment to it, and the other Levys, seems to indicate that stealth taxes are still all the rage on both sides of the old political divide! Not much to choose between them then overall.

However there are supposedly going to be new allegedly more open and efficient political processes shaping our energy and environmental future. Labour has introduced the Infrastructure Planning Commission to over large projects. But that seems far from being a move towards more democratic approach, leaving an open goal for the Tories, who launched a planning green paper ‘Open Source Planning’ with proposals for getting neighbourhoods involved in planning decisions in order to encourage sustainable development via a system with a basic national framework of planning priorities and policies, within which local people and local government can produce ‘their own distinctive local policies’. IPC as such would be abolished, though it seems something similar would be retained for some large projects- a Major Infrastructure Unit.

So, single issues like Heathrow apart (and that has to be put alongside the Tories liaison with climate change deniers in Europe), there doesn’t seem much to choose between them in the end in this area either.

So we are left with rhetoric about democracy, but not much sign of the actual thing –or many real choices. While the Tories talk vacuously of ‘people power’, David Miliband, in an article in SERA’s New Ground, said that the ‘language of social responsibility cannot deliver the substance of national action- it is simply not enough to implore greater responsibility from individuals for problems that need organised collective action’. Fair enough, but, although he accepted that ‘our conception of politics has too often been based on active government and not enough on active citizens’ he pointed to the idea of ‘personal, tradable carbon allowances’ to produce new greener consumer behaviours. So more social control from above…

What about the others? The Lib Dems, coming on strong, says £3.1 billion of public spending will be used to create 100,000 green jobs and help Britain take its first step towards being a zero-carbon nation by 2050, with a target of 40% of UK electricity to come from "clean, non-carbon emitting sources" by 2020, rising to 100% by 2050 . They would ‘will increase the feed-in tariff to provide a 10% return on investment. We have also set out an eco-cashback scheme for the first year of government that will allow people to apply for £400 if they opt for microgeneration’. And they will ‘block any new coal-fiired power stations unless they are accompanied by the highest levelof carbon capture and storage facilities’ and they ‘reject a new generation of nuclear power stations; based on the evidence nuclear is a far more expensive way of reducing carbon emissions than promoting energy conservation and renewable energy’. And they will ‘Abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and return decision making including housing targets, to local people. We will create a third-party right of appeal in cases where planning decisions against locally agreed plans’.

The Lib Dems are of course not alone in pushing green policies hard. So, naturally, does the Green Party, which like the Lib Dems - and the SNP- is strongly anti nuclear and aims to obtain around half of the UK's energy from renewable sources by 2020 and ensure that emissions from power generation are zero by 2030. The Greens promised a £44 billion investment programme, which would include £25 billion investment in renewable energy in order to reduce carbon emissions by 2020. "Our investment would mean that one million jobs could be created over the next five years." They presented themselves as ‘Leftwing plus’.

It’s going to be interesting to see how it all turns out. Some hope for a breakthrough from the Lib Dems and even the Greens, and perhaps also some of the other more radical grouping. That might leaven a hung parliament….even if it includes some UKIP and even BNP, both of whom seem to be in denial about climate change and measure to deal with it- except nuclear!

It is possible that something new and wonderful will emerge for the centre left/ centre right parliamentary stalemate that the UK seems to have reached, but extra-parliamentary campaigns seem increasingly more important- with the growing links between radical greens and trade union groups. The Climate Change Campaigns booklet ‘One Million Climate Change jobs now’, was good start, setting out some of the possibilities. There are certainly a lot of new political alliances being formed outside the old political system- at the grass roots. Whether they will bear fruit in terms of effective action remains to be seen.