Looking ahead in 2008

Sian Berry looks ahead to a busy year including the possibility of running for London mayor alongsid

2008 is going to be another eventful year for green and civil liberties campaigners.

In January we’re expecting announcements on two major campaigns I’m working on. Transport for London will soon release the results of their consultation on new Congestion Charge bands for high and low emission vehicles. By the looks of a recent opinion poll, which will also inform TfL’s decision, charging gas-guzzlers more remains popular amongst a big majority of Londoners (not surprising when nearly half of us in London don’t even own a car).

Later this month, we’ll also hear the government’s decision on who will be running the next census in 2011. I’ve blogged here before about our campaign to prevent arms manufacturing and intelligence gathering giant Lockheed Martin from getting the contract and undermining public confidence in the census. With recent government carelessness raising security concerns among the public about personal data, a decision in favour of Lockheed is looking increasingly self-defeating, as do plans to impose ID cards on us all.

Radio 4’s iPM programme picked up on the census issue a couple of weeks ago, and their interview with the Office of National Statistics showed they are taking the concerns we have raised into account and seeking to prevent the Patriot Act from sending all our details to the US intelligence agencies. The Census Alert petition is nudging into the top 150 of more than 8,000 on the Downing Street website, which isn’t bad but still maddeningly far behind the ‘Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister’ petition. Perhaps Jeremy should join me in running for Mayor – even I’ll admit he makes more sense than Boris Johnson.

And at least Transport for London and the ONS seem to be taking the concept of public consultation seriously, unlike the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. According to the Independent, ‘within days’ new nuclear power stations will get the go-ahead from BERR following the government’s re-run ‘consultation’ on the issue.

This second exercise in coaxing a positive reaction out of hand-picked members of the public has been even less convincing than the first, which was thrown out by the High Court last February after a legal challenge by Greenpeace. The situation hasn’t fazed Secretary of State John Hutton. The Indy quotes sources in his department who are oddly proud of the underwhelming fact that, “dozens of individuals and organisations have contributed to the consultation.” Not sure that will impress the judge when the decision is challenged again by Greenpeace. They and other green organisations pulled out of the second process after being ignored and sidelined and are signalling their intention to take the matter back to court.

Later in 2008, the Climate Change Bill will continue its path through Parliament. With science telling us loud and clear that we must set emissions targets that will keep warming below two degrees, we will be watching closely to make sure the government commits to real action at last. Personally, I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the policies that will enable 7,000 new offshore wind turbines to be built by 2020. This intention was announced in a grand speech by John Hutton (him again) a month ago, but the details of how this will be achieved are thin, if not non-existent. Given that German-style feed-in tariffs, guaranteeing higher prices for clean energy, are by far the most efficient way of funding new renewables, we might just see the government’s perverse commitment to the comparatively useless Renewables Obligation dropped.

Aside from big projects, carbon savings in our daily lives will need to be stepped up this year too. Unfortunately, as outlined in an Observer article last week, polling organisations report worrying signs that the efforts of the other parties to make greener lives appear difficult and expensive may be paying off, with ‘green fatigue’ threatening to set in. People are reluctant to pay green taxes and change their lifestyles mainly because they don’t see the issue being taken seriously by business or government. “There's cynicism because on the one hand we're being told [the problem] is very serious and on the other hand we're building runways, mining Alaskan oil; there's a lot going on that appears to be heading in the opposite direction,” says Phil Downing of MORI.

Keeping the public behind green policies will therefore be a major challenge this year. Since last January, when I blogged about a new high for the environment in MORI’s ongoing ‘most important issues’ poll at 19%, the proportion of people bringing up environmental concerns with MORI’s researchers has dropped back to a much more modest 10% - still way higher than pre-2006 levels but now heading in the wrong direction.

It’s hardly a surprise people lost enthusiasm during 2007 when they saw so little of it from their political leaders. It couldn’t be more obvious that Gordon Brown is looking for an excuse to drop green issues from his agenda: climate change doesn’t even appear on his ‘big issues’ webpage. The Tories also gave the game away last year when their green policy document was repudiated with the ink still wet as soon as an election looked imminent. And, despite their good intentions, the Lib Dems’ mantra of ‘more green taxes’ is surely doing more harm than good to the public’s perception of green issues.

No, it looks like it will be up to us real Greens to make the case that action on climate change can be good for the pockets of ordinary people, not just for our consciences.

Refreshingly, some political previews of 2008 have given airtime to the concept of peak oil, and the fact that high oil and gas prices will become a permanent fixture this year and beyond. In this context, the policies we have planned for London – free insulation for homes, improved public transport with lower fares, more local food, more small and green businesses not complete reliance on the volatile financial sector – start to look like pure common sense, not just for green reasons, but for economic ones too.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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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