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'Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad.' Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger.
'Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad.' Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich F├╝ger.
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Britain's race for the climate abyss - only we can stop it now!

Alan Simpson

13th November 2015

The government's policies on climate, energy and industry are not merely stupid, writes Alan Simpson. The repeated cuts to renewables and energy efficiency, combined with limitless largesse to fossil fuels, has reached the point of insanity in the face of the UK's legal obligations and the growing climate crisis. Only we, the people, can end the madness.

Faced with the prospects of transformation, Britain invariably opts for evasion. Faced with the challenge of living within ecological limits, we always pretend they can be ignored or deferred. But the time for prevarication has gone.

On a daily basis, I now seem to look at Britain's newspaper headlines and am reminded of Longfellow's lines in The Masque of Pandora: "Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad."

It isn't just that the Conservative government has so quickly reverted to being the Ugly Party; dominated by values that are mean, divisive, short-term and vindictive. It is Britain's descent into the stupid and suicidal that I find most painful.

The COP21 Paris Summit looms. The Met Office warns that we have already produced over 1C of global warming. The World Bank predicts that the lives of over 100m people will be devastated by climate crises unless we radically cut carbon emissions. And American military advisors warn that climate change will become 'the Mother of all crises'.

So what does Britain do? It cuts 'clean', subsidises 'dirty', and then blames 'clean' for causing the crisis. We live in a country that is inhaling the wrong stuff.

Faced with a failure to meet European air quality standards, the British government asked for the standards to be lowered. Faced with a failure to meet the UK's 2020 (legally binding) renewable energy targets, the government prefers to pay fines or look for loopholes.

Faced with an exaggerated / manufactured 'crisis' in electricity supply, the Government takes it as an opportunity to throw more subsidies at the most polluting energy sources. And faced with a collapse in the domestic steel industry, the government tries to blame it on 'green' energy rather than crap industrial policy.

This is the heady terrain of insanity.

Last Tango in Paris?

Jeremy Corbyn found himself elected as Labour Leader on a tidal wave of support that was looking for a new politics. This is what Britain should be taking to the Paris Summit - a politics looking for new answers to old problems, not old answers to new ones.

Paris will do its best to be constructive, but is already being sabotaged. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, laid bare the limitations America will impose: "It's definitely not going to be a Treaty ... There are not going to be legally binding reductions targets like Kyoto."

So, Paris will be reduced to a Santa's wish-list. Those looking for a more meaningful 'tango' will have to find more willing partners to dance with. The COP21 Summit will have to be constructively disrupted if it is to stand a chance of saving us from ourselves.

In one form or another, global carbon-budgeting must be put on the table. Then we must work out how to share this budget equitably. It will involve tearing up (and re-writing) most of today's global trade agreements. This won't go down well with the WTO (or the locust interests that feed off it), but the only worthwhile remit that can be given to the organisation now must involve putting the interests of 'World' before those of 'Trade'.

In essence, this means internalising all of the ecological and human costs currently sidelined as 'externalities' in trade agreements. These include the costs of pollution, shipping, aviation and environmental degradation - in carbon emissions, water depletion, biodiversity loss and health damage.

A carbon tax on shipping and aviation, if collected by (or paid across to) the World Bank / UN, would provide the funds needed to for climate mitigation and reparation, already urgently needed in the most vulnerable parts of the planet. If Paris is not to be allowed to talk of binding carbon obligations, let it at least engage with binding carbon taxes

Paris will only succeed in keeping the Earth within 2C warming if it can work backwards from the target to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350ppm. And if the world is to lighten its ecological 'footprint' in this way, we need a new approach to both sustainable production and sustainable trade.

One element will inevitably include the 'domestication' of carbon responsibilities - that is, taking responsibility for the carbon emissions right through the supply chain that sustains us. For the UK, understanding this could usefully begin with its current crisis in steel.

The making of things

David Cameron sounded less like a Prime Minister and more like a braying seaside donkey when he implied that investments in UK clean technologies (such as wind turbines and solar farms) were responsible for pushing up bills for the steel industry and small business owners.

"We have to have a balance here", he told the CBI. "What do we need to secure green safe clean energy supplies and a proper balance in our electricity generation and what to we need to make sure our businesses are competitive. I might get a question later on from the steel industry and the problems they've had in dealing with high energy bills."

Europe's biggest 'producer' economy - Germany - worked out how to avoid this trap, but the UK government intentionally walked into it. No one can consume steel (or anything else) without there being a carbon price to be paid for it, somewhere. Germany exempts heavy industry from clean energy levies, accepts the carbon consequences of producing goods, but still sets (and meets) carbon reduction targets. And their domestic industries have to play a part in this.

Britain's deregulated economics will not entertain this. It's pretend economics prefers to let industries close, see goods imported, and hide the carbon impact under the rug of trade 'liberalisation'.

Today's free-trade agreements ignore carbon emissions completely, both in production and shipment. Britain's slide into an economics of consumption and speculation has even enshrined this into the remit of its Climate Change Committee. The 'offshore' carbon footprint of imported goods does not even count in UK carbon emissions.

The problem is rooted, not in a global glut of steel production, but that none of it - notably including shipping - come within carbon budgets that have to be accounted for (and reduced). Britain could make a case for the 'domestication' of the entirety of these responsibilities.

Suppose the UK government decided it was actually going to meet its EU 2020 renewable energy commitments. This would probably need an extra 5.5GW of onshore wind and 3.5GW of offshore. That, on its own, would require around 1.5m tonnes of steel over the next five years. Add to this the iron and steel needed for rail infrastructure improvements and the introduction of new fleets of electric / hydrogen / biofuel busses, and you have the basis of a healthy domestic order book.

None of this reduces carbon emissions per se. It just brings the responsibility back home. Then, as in Germany, you can challenge industry to come up with less carbon-intensive production methods, to devise innovative 'storage' schemes, and use surplus 'heat' to reduce carbon emissions coming from heating our own homes.

Industries with a future can come up with answers to how we live more lightly. Dead industries (and import dependence) cannot.

One Planet Osborne?

However unlikely it may seem, this could even define an ecological space in which Labour met Osborne.

The Chancellor's obsession with austerity and 'living within our means' needs re-focusing. He is just chasing the wrong 'budget' to balance. Labour's olive branch to Osborne should be the commitment to a balanced UK 'carbon' budget. First and foremost this means reducing energy consumption - rather than benefits.

In 2006, Germany began a 20 year programme to raise all its housing stock to 'near-zero' carbon standards. Their KfW bank offers long-term, low interest loans to do so (and writes off up to 17.5% if improvement is to the highest energy efficiency standards). In the process, it delivers shed-loads of jobs. In fact, the majority of jobs in Germany's Energiewende programme are now in energy saving rather than energy generating. Others are following suit.

The Netherlands has its own Energiesprong (energy leap) programme delivering a 10-day (minimally intrusive) transformation programme for existing buildings - wrapping them with external insulation, installing better roofs, and including solar panels. With 50% of domestic carbon emissions coming from heating needs, this is a smart place to start.

But 'smart' is also becoming a whole lot smarter. In Europe alone. There are some 6,500 towns, cities and regions en route to transforming themselves into more sustainable entities. This involves localising energy grids, developing new networks for energy storage, using surpluses (or wastes) to deliver low carbon transport, and using smart technologies, turning cities into their own 'virtual' power stations.

In the UK, such an exciting approach could put the Chancellor back on the planet we must all live on. But would he want to go there? The evidence suggests not.

The semantics of self-delusion

Along with other Member States, Britain is expected to comply with the 2010 EU Energy Efficiency Directive. This Directive requires that, by the end of 2020, "all new buildings are nearly zero-energy buildings". For all new buildings owned or occupied by the public sector the compliance date is even earlier (2018).

Following that, there are duties to set targets for the refurbishment of existing buildings to the same near-zero energy standards. It is a world full of excitement, innovation ... and jobs. Britain's response, however, seems to be more off-planet than off-message.

The Chancellor has cancelled Britain's Zero Carbon Homes commitment for new homes, and now has no programme for refurbishment. Asked about compliance with the Energy Efficiency Directive, UK house-builders drag their feet, saying merely that they are in discussions with the government about the meaning of the word 'nearly'. You can see where this is going.

This, in essence, is the problem that bedevils British politics. Faced with the prospects of transformation, Britain invariably opts for evasion. Faced with the challenge of living within ecological limits, we always pretend they can be ignored or deferred. But the time for prevarication has gone.

Climate crises can no longer be avoided, but catastrophe still can. Living better is still within our reach, but only if it is 'lighter' ... and only if stripped of delusions that the Masque of Pandora presents as reality.

If the Paris Summit cannot discard the madness, then society will have to do so for itself. Survival now depends on it. To borrow the words of Prometheus in Longfellow's Masque:

"Assert thyself; rise up to thy full height;
Shake from thy soul these dreams effeminate,
These passions born of indolence and ease.
Resolve, and thou art free. But breathe the air
Of mountains, and their unapproachable summits
Will lift thee to the level of themselves."

 


 

Alan Simpson is an advisor and campaigner on energy and climate policies. For 18 years he was a Labour MP and was the architect of Feed-in-Tariff amendments in the Energy Act 2008. Alan lives in an Eco-house in Nottingham and is a member of two energy co-ops. He is a net supplier of electricity to the grid.

 

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