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What would a Labour-SNP deal mean for energy policy?

If the SNP do hold the balance of power, it will be energy policy where it has the biggest consequences.

Tucked away in the innards of the Scottish National Party’s General Election manifesto are a few phrases about energy and climate change policy that might turn out to have profound implications for both Scotland and the rest of the UK.

“The additional investment we seek should include investment in our energy infrastructure so we can continue to maximise renewables generation, in particular offshore” is one.

“We will support lower energy bills for consumers by pushing for the Energy Company Obligation to be funded through general taxation and not as a levy on energy bills” is another.

Perhaps the most profound is “We will use our influence at Westminster to ensure the UK matches, and supports, Scotland’s ambitious commitments to carbon reduction.” 

The potential significance of these phrases will only come to be realised firstly if the election results in a Miliband premiership supported by the SNP, and secondly if the SNP seriously follows through on these components of the manifesto.

If it does, we will end up in 2020 with a UK profoundly transformed – where energy efficiency is improved in both domestic and industrial applications, and where the march to an electricity network based on renewable energy is re-invigorated rather than stalled.

 

Logic for change

 

To understand why the SNP has put these strands in its manifesto and how they might play out, we need a little context.

Pre-referendum, the SNP’s main pitch relating to energy was that an independent Scotland could base its future economy on North Sea oil and gas.

The economics looked dodgy even then. But given the recent slump in the international price of oil and gas – and given indications that the price might fall much lower still if Iran returns to the international fold – this strategy increasingly looks akin to putting your life savings on a hobbled skewbald in the 3.35 at Musselburgh.

Amid all the rumpus surrounding North Sea oil and gas, fracking and wind farms, it’s easy to miss the really profound fact that in the electricity system, Scotland is already nearly a fossil fuel-free nation.

The only significant coal-fired power station, at Longannet, is due to close next year. That will leave just one major gas-fired station, at Peterhead – sustained by a National Grid contract to supply backup power – and a few much smaller coal and gas stations in remoter locations. 

It is equally clear that no new nuclear reactors will be countenanced north of the border.

Which leaves renewables as by far the dominant supplier of electricity. 

They already providing nearly half of Scotland’s power, and are set to generate 100% of consumption by 2020 or shortly thereafter. Beyond that, adding more renewables means being able to sell more and more electricity to the Sassenachs – which looks a far more reliable source of revenue right now than oil and gas.

But current policies would slow renewables progress in the next couple of years. Electricity market reform has reduced funding from Westminster, and prevented Holyrood from offering top-up subsidies. And on support beyond 2020, investors are offered nary a clue.

Hence the SNP manifesto pledge to seek “additional investment” that will enable Scotland to “continue to maximise renewables generation”. Plus, of course,maximising renewables companies, jobs and supply chain.

 

Efficient transformation

 

Cutting energy waste should obviously be the first move in any programme to reduce emissions – not least because it also reduces bills and improves energy security.  

But you wouldn’t guess that from looking at policies enacted by the Coalition. The Green Deal has been, according to its former champion Greg Barker, a “big mistake”. And the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s statutory advisor, says euphemistically that progress in the commercial sector has been “limited”.

Improving energy efficiency by insulating homes also reduces fuel poverty, which is about four times more prevalent in Scotland than in the UK as a whole.

So for the SNP, accelerating energy efficiency improvements has a political appeal in addition to being achievable policy.

There are many ways it could be done. Labour is pledging a major initiative that could improve five million homes – and the SNP’s idea of funding the ECO scheme, which helps some of the poorest households, from taxation rather than energy bills seems entirely congruent.

 

Climate of ambition

 

The most eye-catching – and least anticipated – of the SNP’s pledges is to put the UK’s carbon reduction commitments on a par with Scotland’s.

In the long run, there’s no difference between them; but in the short-term, the difference is profound. Rather than cutting carbon emissions by 34% from 1990 levels by 2020, the UK would adopt the current Scottish target of 42%.

Securing this as a new target during 2015 would deliver a huge boost to prospects of securing a global climate change agreement at December’s summit in Paris, nudging the UK ahead of Germany in carbon-cutting commitments and single-handedly delivering a golden British dollop of unanticipated ambition to the UN negotiations.

However, meeting it would require a step-change in commitment to decarbonisation programmes in many sectors, not just energy. And it would require delivery in just a single Parliamentary term.

Which is why it is the most profound of these three SNP asks – and the one at which Labour would be most likely to baulk.

The electoral dice have of course yet to roll, and Nicola Sturgeon’s troops may end up holding no more power than the Pirate Party. 

But if they do, and if they are serious about this agenda, the UK is set for a major transformation – and Labour for some hard questions.

 

#Match4Lara
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#Match4Lara: Lara has found her match, but the search for mixed-race donors isn't over

A UK blood cancer charity has seen an "unprecedented spike" in donors from mixed race and ethnic minority backgrounds since the campaign started. 

Lara Casalotti, the 24-year-old known round the world for her family's race to find her a stem cell donor, has found her match. As long as all goes ahead as planned, she will undergo a transplant in March.

Casalotti was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in December, and doctors predicted that she would need a stem cell transplant by April. As I wrote a few weeks ago, her Thai-Italian heritage was a stumbling block, both thanks to biology (successful donors tend to fit your racial profile), and the fact that mixed-race people only make up around 3 per cent of international stem cell registries. The number of non-mixed minorities is also relatively low. 

That's why Casalotti's family launched a high profile campaign in the US, Thailand, Italy and the US to encourage more people - especially those from mixed or minority backgrounds - to register. It worked: the family estimates that upwards of 20,000 people have signed up through the campaign in less than a month.

Anthony Nolan, the blood cancer charity, also reported an "unprecedented spike" of donors from black, Asian, ethcnic minority or mixed race backgrounds. At certain points in the campaign over half of those signing up were from these groups, the highest proportion ever seen by the charity. 

Interestingly, it's not particularly likely that the campaign found Casalotti her match. Patient confidentiality regulations protect the nationality and identity of the donor, but Emily Rosselli from Anthony Nolan tells me that most patients don't find their donors through individual campaigns: 

 It’s usually unlikely that an individual finds their own match through their own campaign purely because there are tens of thousands of tissue types out there and hundreds of people around the world joining donor registers every day (which currently stand at 26 million).

Though we can't know for sure, it's more likely that Casalotti's campaign will help scores of people from these backgrounds in future, as it has (and may continue to) increased donations from much-needed groups. To that end, the Match4Lara campaign is continuing: the family has said that drives and events over the next few weeks will go ahead. 

You can sign up to the registry in your country via the Match4Lara website here.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.