A green conspiracy against fun?

As a member of a genuine grassroots campaigning group, I have been riveted by the recent articles and Newsnight report by George Monbiot trailing his new book, Heat (now high on my growing reading list). These have been exposing what he calls the denial industry, a wide-ranging “network of fake citizens’ groups and bogus scientific bodies” funded by the oil and motor industries to cast doubt on climate science and inspired by the example of the tobacco industry.

Their strategy of sowing confusion and misinformation is very familiar to me. The Alliance Against Urban 4×4s highlighted the involvement of the Ford Motor Company in funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) http://www.cei.org/ in our leaflet for visitors to the British International Motor Show in July, using evidence from the excellent Exxonsecrets website.

The AEI’s big wheeze this year was a set of adverts on US television that praised carbon dioxide build-up as no danger but a friend of nature, essential for life. Scientists whose work was cited by the AEI have since disowned the ads and they thankfully never aired in the UK, but the messages seem to be reaching us anyway. Whenever I take part in a discussion programme or phone-in on 4×4s, similar myths about climate change make an appearance.

The huge sums of money invested in this public relations scam are what astound me most about the evidence Monbiot has collected together. And what makes me most depressed. The carpet cleaning expenses of the AEI alone would have paid for all the activities of the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s in the past few years.

Starting out in a pub with six people and a fifty quid whip-round three years ago, we have kept the campaign going largely by selling t-shirts and applying for small grants from other environmental organisations and foundations. Our most famous ‘school run’ demonstration, where we dressed up as lollipop ladies and teachers and handed out mocked up school reports to 4×4 drivers, cost us £100 – an amount most PR professionals would laugh at – but because our cause was valid and newsworthy it got us six months of regular publicity.

However, despite our modest means, it seems that a certain section of the population now believes we are part of a well-funded, top-down global environmental conspiracy out to ruin everyone’s fun. Michael Crichton’s 2005 novel State of Fear took this fantasy to its ultimate conclusion, depicting the environmental movement as a cabal of jet-setting megalomaniacs prepared to commit mass-murder to achieve their sinister aims.

There’s an obvious logical flaw in this. What possible aims could we have beyond concern for the planet and a desire for a way of life that might last beyond peak oil? People like Crichton will tie themselves up in knots inventing bizarre plots before they will admit that the race to be richer and accumulate more houses and cars may not actually appeal to everyone.

There are two pertinent facts I have noticed since I joined the green movement, which commentators like Crighton simply haven’t grasped. Fact 1 is that no environmentalist I know is in this for personal gain. They would be mad if they were because Fact 2 is that there isn’t any real money in being an environmental campaigner.

I can count the people I know who make their living solely from green campaigning on my fingers and toes. And if there are any greens maintaining a flash luxury lifestyle on the proceeds of their work I haven’t met them.

Instead, as the ecological emergency becomes more urgent, it is notable that more and more of my colleagues are in fact downsizing their careers and lifestyles, living the simplest life they can and deliberately earning and working less in order to find more time and energy for their campaigns.

At the Green Party’s spring conference this year, Scarborough Councillor Jonathan Dixon gave us a lesson in creative downsizing as part of a debate on energy. His advice was to be hard working and very good at your day job. Then, when you are offered a pay rise for being so great, ask to reduce your working hours instead. After a while you will find yourself with an equally rewarding career and, in addition, plenty of time to work on non-paying things like saving the planet - or indeed anything that takes your fancy.

Brilliant and inspiring stuff, even if Jonathan turns out to be sponsored by an international conspiracy intent on making everyone more civilized and contented - at any cost.

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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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.