Miliband's new energy policy could be a vote winner

A greener and cheaper approach would have significant appeal.

A Hackgate-galvanised Ed Miliband has picked a new Goliath to aim his slingshot at. In a little-noticed newspaper interview, the Labour leader pledged to demolish the Big Six energy suppliers' control of the domestic electricity and gas market: "Six energy companies control 99.9 per cent of the consumer market. This cannot be right and we must take action to open up the market over the coming months," he said. Household bills will fall as result, he claimed.

The phone-hacking scandal has provided Team Miliband with some traction. His story of the powerful-versus-the-powerless is gaining momentum. Attacking what he sees as the unfettered interests of the over-powerful started with banks, and flourished with newspaper proprietors. The energy companies are now firmly in his sights.

It was a carefully-chosen political target. A recent poll by Populus found that 63 per cent of 2,000 respondents were "very concerned" about rising gas and electricity prices. The issue is nearly twice as important to the British public as the state of the NHS, unemployment rates and public sector cuts, which have all received far greater media attention. Miliband, reacting quickly to recent energy price rises, has grabbed a topic that wouldn't normally attract attention until the autumn, when the weather turns colder.

In his zeal to keep bills down, Labour's leader must not ignore the cost of green policies in higher energy prices. Currently climate policies add around 14 per cent on to household electricity prices (and 4 per cent on gas prices), according to government figures. By 2020, policies will increase electricity prices by more than 30 per cent. For businesses, the percentage rise is around 40 per cent.

This is tricky political territory for Miliband, who ran the Department for Energy and Climate Change before last year's election. However, his new focus on protecting people's pockets should lead to a fresh look at wasteful policies.

Top of the list should be the EU's 2020 Renewable Energy Directive, which needlessly commits the UK to meeting 15 per cent of its total energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. This move was driven by a desire for a catchy European green slogan rather than hard-headed economics. By forcing the UK to decarbonise by installing expensive offshore wind rather than cheaper alternatives like improving energy efficiency and more nuclear power, this sloganeering will cost UK bill-payers at least £12.5 billion. In addition, the Coalition's proposed overhaul of the electricity market will unpick a major public policy success of the last 30 years, and risks further unnecessary price rises. The confusing jumble of carbon prices that the current policy mish-mash has created should also be overhauled (Policy Exchange has called for the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme to be scrapped as part of a much-needed tidy up and replaced with mandatory carbon reporting).

A clearer carbon price, backed by contracts, will ensure the cheapest possible emissions cuts are made first. At the same time, finding long-term, low carbon technologies that are cheaper than coal and gas requires a smarter focus on research and development.

Reaching carbon targets will increase household and business energy prices. Politicians must be up front about that. However, the government -- and Miliband -- should maintain an unrelenting focus on ensuring that any move to becoming greener is as done as cheaply as possible.

Guy Newey is a senior research fellow for environment and energy at Policy Exchange.

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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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