What’s going wrong with politics and energy – and how to fix it

Change is always tricky, but it's far from impossible, writes Green Alliance's Alastair Harper.

Uncertainty over the government’s position on our energy future is costing us. One senior Conservative figure, deeply frustrated by the situation, confided that interest rates on energy projects have increased by 15 per cent over the last few weeks, entirely because of Westminster’s energyshambles. That kind of financing leap adds up – and features later on our bills.

Changing our infrastructure is hard. It means changing things not just for those who provide it, but for the people who use it. It is a big challenge that costs and can confuse. Look at what happened recently in broadcasting – we moved from an analogue format to a digital one. A relatively minor shift in the mode of transmission, but what an effort it took.

It wasn’t just about changing our televisions. It meant changing everything from the cables in the ground to the satellites in space. Because of this, it meant changing things not just in the UK, but around the world. But it worked. How?

First, a global agreement was reached as to when the switchover should happen. Six years ago, a deadline of 17 June 2015 was registered with the United Nations. 

Each nation then agreed its domestic target for achieving the switchover – Netherlands was first in 2006, while the UK finished a few weeks ago on 24 October 2012. 

The government spent a considerable amount of money helping people with this change, overseen by an independent body of experts in the form of Digital UK. But such was the rigour and certainty with which the government went about the process (empowered by cross-party support) that it ended up costing less than expected.

You would think that a demonstrable improvement shouldn’t need government interference: the market should take care of itself. But manufacturers need coordinated targets to tell them when a product becomes redundant and new ones are needed. Retailers need to know what they should be stocking when. During the digital switchover, a clear line of direction helped the public and business to bring about a complex change together on time and under budget.

This was a huge programme of change – from making sure a regional care home had a functional communal telly, to sending new satellites into space. And this was all done not for anything as dramatic as saving the planet - just to offer a better product. 

So why is it so much more difficult for something much more important like the switch to low carbon energy? Why the newspaper headlines? Why the controversy? Why the mess?

Much of the structure is already in place. We have, as we did with the digital switchover, a nonbinding UN agreement on decarbonisation. It’s not enough, of course, but as China reduces its emissions by 15 per cent in five years, we can’t pretend not to be part of a global process.

We have a firm domestic target – an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 as set out in the Climate Change Act.

We have the independent experts to achieve that goal in the form of the Committee on Climate Change. 

Everything should be in place to achieve the change we need, so why does it feel like something’s going wrong? It’s the politics. 

We had a target, but the politicians argued about how to meet it. We had advisers, but the politicians argued about what they advised. 

As no one knows what the direction of travel is, the costs are going up. They go up as government whips secretly support rival parties. They go up as one department calls for a gas-led future and another says it will have a limited role. When one minister says an energy technology is done, and his boss says he is wrong. This is all despite huge public support for renewables – in fact, a recent analysis showed Conservative voters want more wind, not less.

That is why business is so cross. That is why everyone from Siemens to Alstom to Virgin to Marks and Spencers to National Grid to Microsoft to Edf to Unilever  and many, many more have said we need more certainty. As Mike Barry of M&S recently said: “the certainty of the Climate Change Act has been replaced.”

At the moment, under the Climate Change Act, we only have a target for greenhouse gas emissions across the economy– everything from agriculture to refrigeration. These are all pillars, holding up the structure of our decarbonisation plan. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a target for any one particular pillar, but a crucial one is currently looking very wobbly indeed – our electricity generation. If we don’t succeed in decarbonising electricity, everything else will have to meet much higher targets, making everything much more expensive.

As with digital switchover, as with the rail revolution, as with decimalisation, our country has prepared itself for a big change to the status quo. We should be busy achieving the change. We shouldn’t need extra frameworks  – but our politicians have let us down. We now need our politicians to show they are capable of giving businesses the structure they need to deliver without them, by listening to what those companies have told them and putting in place a clear figure on how much carbon can be in our electricity mix by 2030. 

A solar thermal generator in California's Mojave desert. Photograph: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

Photo: Getty
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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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