Lost in Brussels

AL Kennedy on the perils of visiting Brussels, how to spot the British amidst a foreign crowd and on

Sadly, I missed getting hit on the head by police batons at the anti-Bush protests. (Why is it - and I’m asking seriously – that police are so very suggestible ? Dress them in riot gear and they do like to bust things up. Mix them with US enforcement and they get all Vietnam on your ass.) And, as we know, the police usually try to bully crowds if they are not composed of football supporters and then get pre-emptively tense about the consequences of their own actions. Inflicting head wounds with metal bars isn’t what I’d call an appropriate response to a peaceful demonstration, but then what do I know about democracy…? Depressing.

Why wasn’t I in London being prevented from walking up Whitehall in a perfectly legal manner ? Because I was working. (Ish) I had to go to Europe – by train. (Indulging my own irrational fears without hitting anyone at all.) So, up at the crack of dawn, down to London, through the Chunnel – a huge undersea chimney within which I could sample the delights of being drowned, crushed and incinerated, perhaps simultaneously. And yet I doze peacefully through it - perhaps due to lack of oxygen: many others seem to doze, too – and am relaxed as a drugged puppy. Then on to Cologne and on even further by car to Bitberg which is in Eifel, which has its own international literary prize. (Imagine Berwick having its own international literary prize, or Kettering – we just don’t do culture, do we ?)

The journey out wasn’t quite as smooth as I’d anticipated. First I had to negotiate the mingled British and non-British crowds at St Pancras – duly noting that the two groups were instantly recognisable – the non-Brits weren’t pissed, tense, whining and hitting their toddlers with shoes. Then I had to negotiate Brussels Midi, not the world’s easiest or loveliest railway station. Many of its platforms are ridiculously long and curved which means you (or indeed I) could be waiting docilely on the correct platform while a train sneaks in invisibly around the curve, hides and sneaks out again without you. (Or indeed me.) Having missed my first train, I then descended to the ticket office, where you have to take a ticket to stand in the queue for a ticket, then conduct extensive negotiations to have your ticket – the first ticket – turned extremely slowly into your third ticket, before running up to the platform in order to miss another secretive train and repeat as necessary. There was a point at which I believed that a) I would never leave Brussels again and/or b) I had died and would never leave Brussels again and/or c) I was taking part in some kind of perverse psychological experiment and would begin stress-induced gnawing at my own limbs within minutes.

But – on the bright side – Bitberg was friendly, The folks were delightful and gave me their International Prize in return for making a small speech, while lavishing me with free food, much of it asparagus-based. (It is the season for it.) The only blot on the landscape was provided by the German football team who have managed to qualify for something or other – this causing me to have to converse about football in German, when I cannot do so in English and lack essential vocabulary like goal, nippy winger and I’d rather pluck out my own eyes and throw them in a blender. That’s a fib, actually – I know how to say the last one in many languages, because it comes up so often.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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