Cameron argued that his government would be the greenest ever, but market solutions are turning out to be no solutions at all, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh
In the wake of the killings in Paris on 13 November, the French government has now banned the major climate demonstrations planned for Paris on 29 November and 12 December, although micro-demos throughout the city are still planned for the latter date. While in some ways the UN climate talks have become more prominent as a result of Paris – President Obama has confirmed that he will be attending in person, which he was reportedly not planning to do until the attacks – it is inevitable that the issue of climate change will be overshadowed by the more pressing question of bombing Syria.
One way to respond to this is to amplify the connections between climate change and conflict, as Prince Charles did by arguing that drought in Syria was one of the causes of the civil war and the rise of Isis. It is of course true that climate change-related natural disasters will create a more dangerous and unstable world. In the case of Syria, however, foregrounding the drought as a root cause of problems in the region lets other more obvious factors off the hook, particularly the West’s war on Iraq. Another response is to recognise that even when they have slipped out of the headlines, the climate talks and the mobilisations around the world on 29 November remain important. This is particularly true for the UK, since the Tories, elected in 2010 on the promise that they would be the greenest government ever, are now taking some startling and worrying positions on climate change.
In many ways this is unsurprising. The Tory party is still the obvious political home of the climate-change denier, in which denial tendencies have proven not to be a barrier even to becoming the minister responsible for climate change policy. David Cameron himself referred to support for renewable energy as “green crap”. In contrast, Amber Rudd, the current Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has reputation as a turquoise Tory and as someone who will talk the talk on the importance of dealing with climate change. Her appointment was hailed with a degree of relief by some in the green movement, but she has presided over some of the most environmentally-destructive government policies seen for some time.
The government’s attacks on renewable electricity generation have been marked and unprecedented: the subsidy for solar power has been cut by 87%, while subsidies for onshore wind have been ended earlier than planned, and local authorities have been given new powers to stop new installations. The support for offshore wind is also under threat. Coupled with threats to the feed-in tariff (where owners of solar panels or wind turbines get paid for energy they supply to the grid), it could amount to the wholesale destruction of the domestic renewables industry.
Rudd set out the thinking behind this and the government’s entire approach to the Paris talks in a major speech on 18 November: “We cannot support every technology. Our intervention has to be limited to where we can really make a difference – where the technology has the potential to scale and to compete in a global market without subsidy.” The speech committed the government to consulting on phasing out coal-fired power stations (unless fitted with carbon capture and storage) by 2025, but focused on replacing them with gas-fired power stations, fed by shale gas from fracking, and with nuclear power.
The justification for this was that the UK’s energy mix was not something for government to decide, but something which could only be resolved by the market. The role of government in this vision is not actually to procure energy or make decisions on energy policy, simply to facilitate consumers and businesses acting through the market to get the energy that they want. Thus the approach to the Paris climate talks is supposedly that “climate change will not be solved by a group of over-tired politicians and negotiators in a conference centre. It will take action by businesses, civil society, cities, regions and countries. Paris must deliver a clear signal that the future is low carbon that unleashes the levels of private investment and local action needed.”
The sovereignty of the market is of course a key element of Tory ideology, but one which has already been proven unworkable in the energy sector. Ministers have been complaining since the last parliament that consumers just won’t behave like proper consumers: they have other things to do, apparently, than making the market function by switching energy suppliers in search of the best deals. The fate of renewables is also a demonstration of how the byzantine construction of the domestic energy market works against its supposed aims.
Renewable energy is often criticised by its detractors for being too expensive, but the problem is actually that enough is now being generated that the price has fallen. This means that the wholesale price is less than the price guaranteed to the energy generators in their contracts, so the difference has to be made up through the renewables levy. This is not paid from government coffers, but by the big energy companies. It is therefore added to consumer energy bills (since it would of course be unthinkable that the companies could be expected to take the hit to their profits), and the government can then turn on the renewables industry for costing consumers too much.
It should also be noted that the government itself does not rely on the market to fund projects it wants to support. When Rudd was fulminating against industries which cannot stand on their own two feet without subsidy, she was presumably not thinking of the new 35-year subsidy programme just agreed for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. The UK is in fact the only G7 country to be increasing the subsidy for fossil-fuel production and one of only a few in the G20.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Tory energy policy is being shaped in the interest of major corporations like Total, Chevron and Apache, some of the major beneficiaries from UK fossil-fuel subsidies. Even the relatively green step towards phasing out coal-fired power stations, if done in order to replace them with more gas, is in the interest of the major fracking corporations like Cuadrilla. Domestic firms making solar panels cannot possibly compete.
The need for capital to find somewhere in which to be invested also provides a structural reason why capital-intensive projects like nuclear power stations are preferable to the party of the major capitalists, compared to more diffuse energy generation systems, even profitable ones. However, behind the Tories’ dislike of renewables is also their ideological aversion to public spending.
In the UK’s privatised energy sector, it is possible to envisage building new nuclear or gas-fired power stations through the private sector, even if the deal has to be sweetened with substantial subsidies and even if the Chancellor has to go as far as China in search of investors willing to take the risk. In contrast, the way that the renewable energy sector has been allowed to develop has been piecemeal, according to where consumers and businesses have been willing and able to install solar panels or sign up to green energy tariffs. It would be possible to move from this to generate all the UK’s electricity requirements from renewable sources, but that would require a step-change in government intervention to create a green infrastructure. It would not be a matter of encouraging more consumers to go for solar, but of the government spending public money, and that, to a government committed to austerity, is anathema.
Cameron is presumably working on the assumption that enough of his base share his real feelings about ‘green crap’, and so the fact that the UK is in contention for the ‘most retrograde climate policy’ prize will go unpunished. That he is probably right gives a clue as to how the green movement should view the Tories. There is a strand of thinking that holds that ‘we need everyone’ to get real action on climate change. As a slogan to unite everyone against climate-change deniers this has a punchy validity, but that isn’t the situation we are facing.
The Tories are not by and large denying the reality of climate change, it’s just that their ideology means that their response is to re-classify the gas produced by fracking as renewable energy. In order to change everything we do indeed need everyone who is prepared to fight the market-driven, austerity agenda, which is the main barrier to real action on climate change. As Rudd demonstrated last week, turquoise Tories we don’t need.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.
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