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22 July

Fuel price protests can’t just avoid the climate question

Protest groups Fair Fuel and Just Stop Oil have very different solutions to the petrol crisis. Only one is fit for the future.

By India Bourke

The global cost of oil and gas is shooting ever upwards in the wake of the war in Ukraine; energy corporations are getting record profits while hitting the poorest hardest, both at home and at the fuel pump. The protests planned for Friday across England and Wales – the latest in a series of recent demonstrations – show the anger over growing fuel prices.

During the fuel crisis, different protest groups in the UK have been racing to define the solution: one prominent group wants to perpetuate our current fossil fuel addiction, while another wants to break from the mistakes of the past.

First is the climate campaign group Just Stop Oil, from which a number of activists invaded the track at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix motor race earlier this month. Seven activists were arrested on-site, but not before garnering some high-profile support for their efforts to highlight the “climate collapse” that continued fossil fuel use will create. “Big up the protesters,” said the Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton at a press conference after the event. “I love that people are fighting for the planet.”

The following day, protesters supported by the campaign group Fair Fuel UK also staged a headline-making demonstration. Groups of farmers, HGV drivers and everyday car-users deliberately crawled along various motorways across the country. Their rolling roadblock protests are a response to fuel prices topping £100 for an average-sized car, and are accompanied by calls for a 20p cut in fuel duty, as well as the creation of a pricing watchdog.

What both groups share is anger. Oil companies and fuel wholesalers are profiteering from the global oil price rise, argues Fair Fuel on its website: “Unchecked greed is rife in the fuel supply chain.” And climate activists were quick to express their solidarity with the arrested fuel-price protesters for their “right to resist what the government is doing to them”, a Just Stop Oil spokesperson told the New Statesman.

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Yet the differences between the two are as important as the similarities. Fair Fuel, which is funded by the Road Haulage Association, has campaigned for fuel-duty cuts for years, and is often credited for the decade-long freeze in the tax. It may even bear some responsibility for today’s fuel-price pain.

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“Fair Fuel has been pressing for fuel-duty cuts forever, even when gas was quite cheap,” explained Matt Finch of the think tank Transport & Environment. Rates of UK fuel duty and vehicle excise duty only raise a combined total of around £34bn, Finch explained – not nearly enough to cover the negative external costs that car use brings. The annual costs of car use include air pollution (£20bn), road expenditure (£12.5bn), noise pollution (£7bn-£10bn) and congestion (£8bn), never mind investment in the kinds of public transport and electric vehicle reforms needed to meet our net zero goals.

Furthermore, because the government listens to groups such as Fair Fuel, it now has little wiggle room in the face of the global energy disaster to reduce fuel duty further. In contrast, Belgium’s government increased fuel duty when global prices rose, and has now lowered it, keeping overall consumer costs in check.

So does Fair Fuel regret not advocating for higher fuel and vehicle taxes in the past? “No” was the resounding response from its co-founder Howard Cox to my question: “Germany has cut duty by 25p, Spain 18p, France 13p as they recognise a fossil-fuelled economy will be with us for decades to come. We should do the same. An unaffordable green-based agenda will bankrupt UK plc.”

He neglected the fact, however, that places such as Germany cutting fuel taxes is not the end of the story – the country has also attempted to ease the cost-of-living crisis by introducing cheaper train travel. Similarly, in New Zealand, public transport fares have been halved – greener transport has become cheaper and incentive-laden alongside car travel. In contrast, long-distance rail travel in the UK is 32 per cent more expensive than it was in 2010.

Instead of fuel tax cuts, the UK government would do better to make the country’s transport system cleaner. In the short term, that could mean an information campaign to help drivers save petrol by carrying less and driving slower. In the longer term, suggested Ben Nelmes of New AutoMotive, a transport research organisation, the government could introduce an interest-free loan scheme to help households suffering car-linked economic stress to purchase second-hand electric vehicles.

As the price of fuel creeps ever upwards, this week’s howl of pain from Britain’s drivers is a warning of further economic pain to come. Yet while all fuel protests have a right to be heard, only forward-thinking solutions can and must win the race.

This article was originally published on 5 July 2022.

[See also: As the heatwave rages, Tory candidates are spineless on climate change]