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26 July 2023

Dale Vince: “The unions don’t get it” 

The green energy entrepreneur on why he funds Just Stop Oil.

By Harry Lambert

Dale Vince – a 61-year-old British green energy entrepreneur whose company, Ecotricity, made £38.5m after tax in 2022 – is no fool. So why is he funding Just Stop Oil, a protest movement that can appear foolish? That was the question I came to Stroud, where Ecotricity is headquartered, to ask Vince one recent afternoon.

Vince – who is tall and broad, and wore slim trousers, a big scarf and a loud hoody – came to widespread public notice over the past year after he provided Just Stop Oil, which was founded in Stroud in February 2022, with the funding to get going. He told me that he has since given the group between £200,000 and £300,000. Vince has also donated £1.5m to Labour over the past decade, making him one of the party’s biggest donors. The Tories have seized on this connection: Rishi Sunak invoked Vince to draw a link between Labour and Just Stop Oil in a recent fundraising email.

We met in the wake of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, a seat Labour lost because of the extension by the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to outer London. The  scheme bans the use of older fossil fuel-powered cars. Vince was amused that this was being cast as a setback for Labour. “Tony Blair didn’t win Uxbridge. So is it a big deal the Tories held it by 495 votes?” he said. The loss came a few weeks after press reports that Keir Starmer “hates tree-huggers”. I put the quote to Vince.

“It might be – what do they call it in the Ukraine war? – a false flag operation. It’s just something in the press.” Vince concedes that Starmer has publicly softened his position on the climate. “There’s an election about to be fought. It’s careful positioning. I know Labour believes in the green economy.”

Vince instead trained his ire on the Tory prime ministers of recent years, whom he sees as culpable for the UK’s continued reliance on fossil fuels. He puts the cost of that dependency during last year’s energy crisis at £100bn. “David Cameron was the first and the worst. He banned onshore wind and effectively shut down the solar industry [at the time]. Theresa May at least put the net-zero targets into law. Boris Johnson talked a good game, but did nothing. Now we’ve got Sunak, who says we need decades of transition, which is nonsense. This is what the oil companies say. But the technology is here, we can make this transition in ten years, the National Grid says that we can have 100 per cent green electricity on the grid, and it runs the thing.”

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Yet Starmer has said that oil and gas will be in the UK’s energy mix “for decades to come”.

“Did he say that? He’s parroting Sunak then.”

In conversation Vince seemed relaxed about Labour’s green policies. “Do you know why? Because the Tories are so f***ing bad for the whole economy, as well as on the climate crisis, that it can only get a shed load better. So I don’t agonise over what Labour will or won’t do, because I know that if the Tories get back in, we’re done.”

Politically Vince is on both the Labour Party’s right (“Blair did a good job; let’s acknowledge it”) and left: he has advocated for £50bn in tax rises on wealth. As an environmentalist, he has a rare authority, having built a business that advances the cause (Ecotricity produces 100 megawatts a year of electricity, mainly from windmills). He also owns Forest Green Rovers – the so-called vegan football club – and hopes to build the team a stadium made out of wood.

“We’ve gone from a time where green energy was an idea for academics and hippies to nearly 50 per cent green electricity on the grid. Now everybody’s into it. So the real frontier is not technology, it’s not economics, it’s not business – it’s politics,” he said.

[See also: Does the world need green growth or degrowth?]

Just Stop Oil attempts to address the politics. During a visit to the Times in July, Rupert Murdoch asked the newsroom to explain the movement to him. I asked Vince, who last year decided against trying to become Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Stroud, to do the same. “We can’t afford to drill for new oil and gas,” he said, “if we’re to have any chance of sticking to a 1.5C° global temperature rise.” The government, he added, “is not listening, so what do we do? Take to the streets. It’s all we can do.”

Just Stop Oil has stopped motorways, defaced artworks and disrupted sporting events. Its actions, I suggested to Vince, are counterproductive. “The media say that all the time. You don’t have an outside reference point for this. You accept it to be axiomatic. Disruption makes news.” But not good news. “Is there such a thing as bad news if you’re trying to create a platform to talk about a problem?” He cited the suffragettes. Change, he said, axiomatically, requires disruption.

Yet no one needed to be arrested for Britain to go from zero to nearly 50 per cent renewable energy on the National Grid: we needed only economic incentives. Vince himself has made this case in the past, saying that “it is economic signals that change behaviour”.

How does stopping a doctor getting to work advance the cause? “It’s another lever to pull,” Vince said. Why pull an ineffective one? “You don’t know a lever is ineffective until you pull on it.”

After 18 months of protest, I suggested, we do now know the Just Stop Oil movement is ineffective: by a margin of 16 to 51 per cent, voters have an unfavourable view of it. Popularity, Vince countered, is not Just Stop Oil’s aim. It is to prevent oil and gas development in the North Sea. I agreed, but was left unsure how unpopularity – and much hostility – will help the group achieve it. Just Stop Oil’s activists have so far achieved nothing more than forcing Starmer to disavow their antics.

At one point, Vince referred to Britain as an “ex-world power with delusions of grandeur”. But Just Stop Oil itself seems to suffer from the same delusions. Nothing that happens in Britain will have any impact on the ultimate goal of the climate movement: preventing global warming of more than 1.5C°. Britain now accounts for less than 1 per cent of global carbon emissions. The fate of the planet will be decided in China, India and the United States, which collectively account for 51 per cent of global emissions.

“If I followed your path, I’d just give up,” Vince said. “We’re not important, the world’s f***ed unless China gets their act together – I don’t accept that.” He added that if we don’t act “no one’s going to listen to us”. But will China listen to Britain? It is not listening over the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.

China is, in any case, already becoming “a proper climate powerhouse”, Vince said. The state has built more solar panels “than the rest of the world put together” and 98 per cent of all electric buses are in service in China. But it is economic incentives and national self-interest that are transforming the world’s biggest polluter, not our moral example, nor the domestic disruption wrought by Just Stop Oil.

In its founding letter the group claimed that trade unions were “finally realising this climate business is not about ice and whales, it’s about economic collapse and mass death”. In reality, Gary Smith, the general secretary of the GMB, told the New Statesman in September that Labour should back fracking and not kowtow to the “bourgeois environmental lobby”.

“I think the unions have been asleep on this issue,” Dale Vince said. “There are two and a half times more jobs for every pound we spend on renewable energy. The unions need to wake up to that fact – these industries are old. I think the unions don’t get it. Fracking is something the country really doesn’t want. Maybe union bosses just haven’t spent enough time thinking about it. Or maybe they’re just not aware of the economic facts.”

[See also: Michael Parkinson – The last interview]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special