Why MPs must block George Osborne’s dash for gas

The Chancellor's plans will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy and breach the UK's climate change targets.

The next 20 years, starting now, will see colossal investment in overhauling Britain’s ageing electricity infrastructure, as old coal and nuclear power stations are closed, and the grid gets updated. A vote in Parliament this week on a clean power target amendment to the government’s Energy Bill will determine what sorts of new kit we will get.

The battle lines are drawn over competing visions of the future. A fossil-fuelled, Treasury and George Osborne future, involving tripling the amount of electricity we get from gas, or a low-carbon future, involving ramping up the power we get from Britain’s near-limitless resources from the waves, water, wind, tides and sun.

At stake are living standards, jobs and the economy, and climate change. Domestic fuel bills will soar if we stay chained to volatile global gas prices - it is spiralling gas price rises which have been responsible for the majority of people’s electricity and gas bill rises in the last decade. The independent committee on climate change’s analysis shows that Osborne’s dash-for-gas will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy. At a time of squeezed living standards, households are handing over larger and larger shares of their income to the big six energy companies. Only a massive programme of energy efficiency that gets the UK off the fossil fuel hook can protect ordinary people.

There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the green economy, one of the few sectors to grow in recession-hit Britain. But its future is uncertain. A huge coalition of more than 200 leading businesses, energy investors, trade unions and charities, including household names like Asda and Microsoft, as well as leading manufacturers like Siemens, Mitsubishi, Alstom, are saying a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill is essential to give companies the confidence to invest in low carbon energy and the supply chains to build it.

If Osborne gets his way, there is no question that the UK will breach its legally binding climate change targets. The difference between the Chancellor's vision and low-carbon power is staggering. Osborne’s plans involve increasing the amount of gas-power in the 2020s to the equivalent of over 30 new gas power plants. This amounts to over 500 million extra tonnes of carbon dioxide: equivalent to every car and taxi on the road for eight years, or every flight for 16 years.

Where will Osborne’s gas come from? North Sea gas reserves are falling fast. So we can either massively increase our energy dependence on gas imports from countries like Qatar, or we can try and plug the gap with shale gas – but for that to provide more than a fraction of our needs we would need thousands of wells across the country. Both these options look like political poison. A recent article on ConservativeHome, "The right-wing consensus on shale gas is about to be blown apart", concluded: "shale gas must also have a huge physical presence across large swathes of rural England. .. it will have political consequences – bigger than wind farms, bigger than HS2 and bigger, even, than greenfield housing development".

All economies need to get off fossil fuels and fast. Electricity is the place to start. MPs get to decide this Tuesday. Nearly 300 MPs from across all parties back the decarbonisation target. The vote will be close. Full turn-out from Labour (who back the target), and a few more Conservative and Liberal Democrats (whose policy it is to support the target but whose leadership is currently siding with Osborne) will help put the UK at the forefront of a clean energy revolution. As Sir John Ashton, the UK’s former climate change envoy said this month: "I can’t myself see how any MP who votes against the target will thereafter be able credibly to claim that they support an effective response to climate change".

Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth

George Osborne makes a visit to the Prysmian Group factory in the constituency of Eastleigh on February 13, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth

Show Hide image

Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.