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Labour must make green the new red. Wind Farm near Oxton, Scottish Borders. Photo: raghavvidya via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Labour must make green the new red. Wind Farm near Oxton, Scottish Borders. Photo: raghavvidya via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
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For Labour to win, green must be the new red

Keith Barnham

13th August 2015

The success of the SNP and surveys carried out by DECC show that green energy is overwhelmingly popular, writes Keith Barnham. Labour's failure to support renewables and oppose nuclear power and fracking may have cost them the last election - but now, with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn there's a real chance for the party to put that right.

Labour, which gained the support of just over 30% of those who voted in May, should have done much more to differentiate their energy policies from the Tories and UKIP who opposed wind and solar farms.

At last, in the final stages of the Labour leadership election, one candidate has highlighted the need for greener policies.

In his striking 'green manifesto' Jeremy Corbyn has called for "a renewable energy revolution", an end to fracking, democratisation of railways, energy and water supply, and a firm NO to new nuclear power stations.

Contrary to the dire warnings of Corbyn's unelectability from Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Alistair Campbell and other alumni of the New Labour project, there's every reason to believe that these policies - especially the commitment to renewable energy - would help Labour regain electoral approval.

Two observations about their May 7th defeat suggest that Labour's manifesto was nowhere near green enough.

The first was the unexpected loss of 40 seats in Scotland to the SNP. Labour's lukewarm support for renewable energy contrasted strongly with the SNP's clear commitment to an all-renewable electricity supply in Scotland by 2020.

Secondly, over all the UK, Labour's gain in the share of the poll (1.5%) was well behind that of the Green Party (2.8%).

Green energy is popular with the UK electorate

The surveys made by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in recent years suggest that the SNP policies on the renewables are much closer to the views of the electorate than Labour's manifesto.

DECC's latest survey shows that between 65% and 81% of the UK public support wind power and solar power. Even when respondents were asked if they would be happy with "a large scale renewable energy development in my area", support for the renewables does not fall far (55% are still in favour).

Labour, which gained the support of just over 30% of those who voted in May, should have done much more to differentiate their energy policies from the Tories and UKIP who opposed wind and solar farms.

The popularity of onshore wind power (65%) is nearly twice the support for nuclear (33%) and more than three times that for shale gas (21%).

DECC did not ask respondents if they would like new nuclear reactors or shale gas extraction in their neighbourhood. No doubt these low percentages favouring nuclear and fracking would have fallen even further had they done so.

The Labour Manifesto: blue with a hint of green

Labour's manifesto commitments on energy were closer to those of the Tory party than the SNP. True, renewable energy was top of Labour's priorities but high-carbon nuclear power came second.

Environmentalists would have been pleased to see green gas coming third, but immediately disappointed by the next sentence. This proposed "a robust environmental and regulatory regime" for what was euphemistically called "onshore unconventional oil and gas", deliberately obscuring the support this policy implied for fracking.

In practice, under the most 'robust' of the regulatory regimes in America, methane escape during fracking still results in higher carbon emissions than coal burning.

DECC's surveys suggest that a Labour proposal to shift some of the massive, existing natural gas subsidies to green gas would have been more popular with the electorate than their support for fracking.

Such a policy might even have won Labour some of the pro-Tory farming vote. The natural gas subsidies could be used to incentivise the collection of farm waste for anaerobic digestion and so produce biomethane green gas.

This would have been far more popular with farmers than the coalition government's policy of bribing them to accept fracking on their land with the attendant risk of contaminated water supplies. Anaerobic digestion of farm waste has an extremely low carbon footprint as, if left to rot, the farm waste produces copious greenhouse gases.

This switch of subsidy would also have been more consistent with Labour's popular proposal to freeze energy prices. The price of fracked gas will remain uncertain until the wells have been dug and yields established. Also the cost of drilling for gas in a "robust regulatory regime" is likely to be higher than the simpler process of anaerobic digestion.

Meanwhile an encouraging feature of the expansion of PV and onshore wind power in the UK is that there are now over 5,000 community renewable energy projects in the UK. Tax breaks for these schemes were ended in the last month of the coalition government.

The new government's cuts to wind and solar farm subsidies will hit community energy groups further. Many of these groups are cooperatives. This should have been a bigger issue in Labour's ill-fated May campaign. Surely it is one issue around which all parts of the Labour Party - indeed the nation - can unite?

Nuclear power is a vote loser

Labour's manifesto support for nuclear power was also inconsistent with their commitment to freeze electricity prices. Should new nuclear reactors ever be built, the massive subsidies necessary to convince sceptical investors to fund them will appear as increased costs to the consumers.

On the other hand, had Labour given stronger support for solar and wind power, they would have been supporting the technologies that are already reducing the wholesale cost of electricity in Germany.

The Tory government's cuts will slow the rate of increase of the renewables in the UK. Fortunately PV and offshore wind are expanding exponentially in the UK. Even if the rate of increase slows, large amounts of renewable power capacity will be installed in the decade it would take to build a third generation reactor.

Any new reactors will be redundant before they start and too expensive to operate. The wholesale price of electricity in the UK will have fallen, as it already has in Germany, thanks to the high level of renewable power generation.

Should the new reactor work, the government's 'contract for difference' will ensure the lower market price will result in electricity consumers having to pay even higher subsidies for nuclear power, for an astonishing 35 year period - renewable energy projects are typically supported for just 15 or 20 years.

The last Labour government decided new nuclear reactors were necessary within five months of deciding to renew the Trident missile system. The two decisions may well have been linked. Labour's continued support for nuclear power probably owes much to a wish to preserve jobs in the nuclear industry.

In practice the jobs that the large nuclear subsidies are aiming to support are mainly in French and Chinese government controlled companies. If no new nuclear reactors are built, the UK nuclear industry will be able to concentrate on a far more necessary task, namely finding a way to keep nuclear waste out of the environment and out of terrorist hands for hundreds of thousands of years.

The government is committed to spending around £3 billion a year indefinitely for this task. Could there be a more secure 'job for life'?

Green policies for the new Labour leadership

We know that a Corbyn win would bring Labour in a much greener direction, and that has to be welcomed. But of course he may yet not win, as his oppenents gather to put their weight behind a single candidate, Yvette Cooper, as their best chance of defeating him.

A quick trawl of her Yvette for Labour website reveals that she has dedicated only two speeches to 'green issues', both of them on fox hunting. The words 'fracking', 'nuclear' and 'wind' receive no mentions at all.

She once mentioned 'climate' in her nomination speech of 15th June, saying "Our role in the world is changing, with deep uncertainty over our relationship with Europe, and new global challenges to face including climate change and the rise of ISIL."

And 'solar' came up once in a speech calling for a revolution in science and research, in which she demanded "Long term policy certainty - for example not chopping and changing as the Government did on solar feed in tariffs."

All in all, Yvette Cooper has said little to suggest that environmental issues are any more than a tangential concern - certainly when compared to Corbyn's substantial and detailed green plan for Britain.

But no matter who wins the contest, the new Labour leadership should propose two simple and straightforward energy policies and encourage others to follow suit at the UN Climate Conference in Paris in December.

Firstly, an limit on greenhouse gas emissions for all new electricity generation at the Committee on Climate Change's recommended level of 50 gCO2/kWh. In effect, the only new electricity generators would be renewable ones. Expanding at their current exponential rates, renewables are capable of giving the UK a safe and sustainable, all-renewable, electricity supply before 2030.

Secondly, Labour should commit to switching the (much larger) government subsidies on fossil fuels, and those planned for new nuclear power stations, to renewables and all the associated changes in energy infrastructure.

These two policies would be popular with the electorate, lead to cheaper energy prices, combat climate change and give us a cleaner, healthier environment. What's not to vote for?

 



Keith Barnham is author of 'The Burning Answer: a user's guide to the solar revolution' and Emeritus Professor of Physics at Imperial College London.

 

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