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22 October 2007

Labour’s myopic vision

Aggressive land-grabs, backed up by a looming military threat, will not bring energy security, write

By Douglas Parr

The UK land grab in Antarctica aptly demonstrates how Labour is struggling to come to terms with the real politics of the environmental threat.

We rely on the atmosphere, the world’s forests, the seas and the soil, and even remote areas like Antarctica to keep our planet suitable for human civilisation to exist. The most fundamental of threats to the planetary life-support system is the challenge of climate change, where we are polluting our atmosphere through the use of coal, oil and gas.

The best evidence suggests we need to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees C. We’ve already seen a rise of around 0.7 degrees and another similar sized rise is inevitably in the pipeline because of existing levels of pollution, even if, from today, the world’s population decided to walk everywhere and to shiver in the cold.

Our room for manoeuvre is not that great. The challenge is that coal, oil and gas underpin our economy. The Government wants to grow our economy. But even a growing economy is, and will remain, a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. As the report Gordon Brown commissioned from Sir Nicolas Stern indicated, if our environment goes, the economy goes with it. We have to change, and change pretty fast.

So how is our Government coming to terms with these limitations on coal, oil and gas use? By making claims on a fragile wilderness, Antarctica, to dig up more oil and gas. It would be ludicrous if it weren’t so myopic.

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Earlier this month came more serious news about the melting of the Arctic ice cap. No doubt melting of ice in the Antarctic will slightly lessen the challenge of offshore exploration. Yet other parts of Government already know we can’t go on like this; there is already more than enough oil and gas available to us to destabilise the climate.

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More to the point, the Foreign Office is seemingly facing both ways. Six months ago, then British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett raised climate change in the UN Security Council as a security threat. The same department is making a land-grab to exploit mineral wealth, which will make the problem worse. It is a desperately incoherent position for this Labour administration.

We need to move away from an energy policy based on aggressively accessing bulk supplies of fuel. Fundamentally, this remains the Brown Government’s view – an approach to global energy supplies that would have been recognised and understood by Clement Attlee decades ago.

21st century technology and politics require a different tack. In Germany, fuel security is being improved by the use of renewable energy – they have 235,000 jobs in the sector, and have installed over 20GW of wind capacity.

The UK, by comparison, has generated only 20,000 jobs in the renewable sector and produces a measly 2.2GW of electricity –despite having the strongest suite of renewable resources in Europe.

Energy security – the holy grail of modern day energy policy – will be rooted in a thriving manufacturing base and skilled workers, and not from aggressive land-grabs backed up by a looming military threat. With the right approach, the twin threats of climate security and energy security can be met.

Instead of bringing our energy policy up to date, we defy the 1959 Antarctic treaty and threaten one of earth’s last untouched ecosystems. Hypocritical – and dangerously short sighted.