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Miliband's leadership on climate is tested

Joss Garman

19th June 2009

The climate secretary has been lauded for his coal-fired proposals, but beyond the smokescreen it’s business as usual says Joss Garman

In true New Labour fashion, Ed Miliband argued that there is a third way. As you’ll have spotted, there are massive, Heathrow-sized holes in it

You have to hand it to him. The climate and energy secretary, Ed Miliband, has had a good few weeks. It began when he stood up in Parliament and told the House, ‘the era of unabated coal is over’. Already fondly thought-of by those on the left, Miliband Junior is increasingly the star of the moment, and seen as having the potential to be ‘the one’ to lead Labour out of its political crisis, particularly as one of the few heavyweight MPs not to have got his fingers caught in the till with the
expenses debacle.

With his review of energy policy, he is widely credited with having craftily defused the row over proposed new coal stations such as Kingsnorth in Kent. Admired by Westminster-village-types as a political fixer in the first place, the chattering classes are now muttering that maybe he can defuse Labour’s woes in much the same way.

As usual with this sort of conversation, the establishment has completely missed the point. Irrespective of how progressive Miliband is in relation to the rest of his party or the rest of Parliament, the climate doesn’t care. Atmospheric make-up doesn’t allow for political compromise, and what he recently announced on coal simply won’t keep us within safe scientific limits on carbon.

It’s true that under excruciating pressure from climate campaigners on the one hand, and giant energy corporations E.ON and RWE nPower and their regressive allies in the civil service on the other, it looks on the face of it as though Miliband just pulled off a political masterstroke. In true New Labour fashion, he argued that there is a third way, a technological solution that can throw a lifeline to the coal industry and reduce the coal industry’s climate pollution. His argument is that since carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology might one day work at full scale, offering the opportunity to capture emissions and bury them under the sea, this technology should be demonstrated on a small scale at all new coal stations in Britain. He tries to reassure us with ‘a clear commitment to low-carbon coal once it is proven: there will an independent judgement about when the technology is proven, and once it is, power stations will have to fit it not just on a part of the plant but to cover 100 per cent of their output’.

As you’ll have spotted, there are massive, Heathrowsized holes in this argument. Crucially, there’s still no castiron guarantee that high emissions will be ruled out from day one. On the contrary Miliband says that between now and the 2020s, for every one ton of carbon pollution to be captured and stored, he’d allow three tons to carry on causing climate breakdown. What will happen in 2020 will depend upon whether it is deemed ‘economically viable’ and, most importantly, whether it works at such a scale. He’s prepared to gamble the climate on the basis of a ‘solution’ that has never been proven at commercial scale before.

So Miliband’s new policy certainly doesn’t mark ‘the end’ of the era of unabated coal. Indeed, when you remember the scientifi c context, it’s distinctly unimpressive.

Remember when Lord Turner’s Committee on Climate Change advised the Prime Minister last December on how the UK could make the legally binding cuts outlined in the Climate Act? He said no coal station – old or new – should be operating without full CCS by the early 2020s. Lord Turner acknowledged that
even if everything he recommended were implemented, things all went according to plan and we stayed within our national carbon budget – and if all other developed countries did the same – it would still only give us a 50-50 chance of staying below 2°C warming, thus avoiding the most dangerous impacts of climate breakdown. No wonder, then, that the godfather of climate science, Professor James Hansen, goes further than Turner and advocates that no coal should be allowed without full CCS from day one.

Now look again at what Ed Miliband is proposing. Your average conventional coal station – like the one proposed for Kingsnorth – would need to capture only about a quarter of its emissions, and he makes no mention of existing coal stations such as Drax at all.

When you consider that just last summer then-business secretary John Hutton came within days of approving the Kingsnorth plans, we know the campaign is working. Huge collusion between energy department offi cials and E.ON has been exposed. Activists who shut down the plant were famously acquitted using a climate defence. The Women’s Institute and Oxfam sailed to Kent with Greenpeace on the Rainbow Warrior, and together reframed the argument. Now, in the run-up to the UN talks in Copenhagen in December, what happens with Kingsnorth will be the test of Miliband’s climate leadership – underlined by Hansen’s warning that ‘every ton of carbon counts’.

Having cornered him into acknowledging that business-as-usual isn’t an option, now we need to win.

Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist

 

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