Securing Britain's energy

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg warns Gordon Brown not to go ahead with a new generation of coal power pla

Gordon Brown is about to make a decision that will bring into sharp focus his true attitude towards energy policy and climate change.

If the government gives the go ahead to construct a new dirty coal power plant at Kingsnorth, it will send a clear signal of their intention to build a new generation of power stations that will leave Britain reliant on coal power for future decades.

Today there is widespread concern at the rising cost of living. Rising prices at the petrol pump, growing electricity and heating costs and inflated food bills are a direct consequence of the rising price of oil. Fossil fuels are showing a frightening degree of price volatility. Coal is no exception. Once regarded as cheap, it too is now rocketing in price. Only a year ago the government was planning on the basis that coal would reach $70 a tonne over the next decade, at worst. But coal has already topped $140 a tonne - and analysts predict that the price will keep on rising.

Supplying Britain’s energy through coal is not only increasingly expensive, it is also less than secure. The UK’s declining coal reserves means we already import nearly three quarters of our coal. We now burn more Russian coal than British. With gas reserves also dwindling a decision to build more coal power stations will render us even more reliant on imported fossil fuels.

There is another way of doing things. Creating genuine energy independence in the UK if the government makes the necessary investment in renewable electricity from known technologies like wind and tidal power.

Once onshore wind turbines were dismissed as expensive. Today they are our cheapest source of electricity - £34/MWh compared to £38/MWh for gas. Offshore wind is more expensive, but unlike fossil fuel technologies, it is projected to fall in price just as onshore wind has done. With a revolution in renewables and improved energy efficiency we can also use our domestic gas and coal to supply necessary back up power when the wind doesn’t blow. This will minimise the need for imports and improve the security of our energy supply.

It would also help to protect the environment.

To his credit, Gordon Brown has adopted a bold renewables target. The stated aim of the government is to ensure that 15% of our energy is generated from renewable sources by the year 2020. That’s a meaningful ambition which has generated support across Britain’s political parties. But the government’s business department seems set on paying for renewables in other countries as a means to exempting itself from meeting the 15% target in Britain itself. By following that course we will not only sacrifice potential energy security gains but the government will send a clear signal about its lack of commitment to tackling climate change.

The Business Secretary, John Hutton, assures us that Kingsnorth and any other coal power stations constructed in the near future will be ‘carbon capture ready’. In other words they will come into service as conventional coal power stations, with all the carbon emissions that involves. The government hopes that the technology for capturing that carbon can then be developed, scaled up and retro-fitted to the new plants. That is unacceptable. By giving the go ahead to new coal power before carbon capture technology is fully functioning, the government will only lessen the incentive to develop it.

WWF’s report this week reminds us that the concerns about acid rain of the 1980s led to power plants being made sulphur capture ready. But despite the technology having been demonstrated decades ago, it is only now that plants are being made to clean up or close. We can’t risk our climate on such feeble foundations. Of course we must trial carbon capture technology. But that must not be an excuse for allowing other plants through until they can capture carbon from day one.

China – along with other developing and polluter countries - will only be convinced to act when wealthier states, including the UK, demonstrate real resolve to deliver a genuine low carbon economy. Investment in renewable energy and operational carbon capture on conventional plants are key steps to reaching that objective. So let’s seize the opportunity to increase our energy security and while putting our economy on course for a low carbon future. The stakes could not be higher.

Nick Clegg is leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Sheffield Hallam. Clegg initially trained as a journalist before working as a development and trade expert in the EU. He was elected as MEP for the East Midlands in 1999, stood down in 2004, lectured at Sheffield and Cambridge universities, and was elected to the UK parliament in 2005.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times