Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Three priorities for Ed Miliband

This is a guest post from Tim Gore, who will be writing for Next Left particularly on environmental issues.


Environmentalists are heralding the announcement of the new government department for Energy and Climate Change. Not a new idea – bringing energy into Defra’s realm was widely touted ahead of the formation of Brown’s first cabinet – but certainly a welcome one.

Many commentators are reflecting that the younger Miliband will have his work cut out – inheriting an in-tray overflowing with issues to be addressed. While the challenges that this new department has been designed to tackle must necessarily be long-term and strategic in nature, here are 3 short-term things the new Secretary of State should do to make a splash in environmental circles and build on the progressive fight-back launched by Gordon’s well-received speech at conference last month.

1. Knock some heads together in Brussels

Not many people know it – outside the insulated circles of EU policy wonks that is – but the most important climate legislation anywhere in the world is currently being decided in Brussels.

The EU Climate and Energy Package, launched with such bravado by a European Council pronouncing bold targets to unilaterally cut carbon emissions in the EU by at least 20% by 2020 (30% if a post-2012 deal is agreed) and to produce 20% of the EU’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, back in March 2007 is now coming to the crunch.

And the ambition for the EU to show real leadership to the world in fighting climate change is getting lost amidst the usual political wranglings behind closed Brussels doors.

Later this month, European heads of government and the ministers with responsibility for climate and energy policy of each member state will have meetings to decide their position on this crucial legislation. There is a crying need for a climate champion to step forth.

With the usually bombastic French constrained by the supposed neutrality of the Presidency, Angela Merkel, under domestic political pressure about the impact on manufacturing jobs ahead of the forthcoming German elections, is dominating the debate, and doing her utmost to oppose the strong measures needed to put Europe on a path to a low-carbon economic future.

Every member state has their own priorities for the negotiations, but what is dearly needed is a bold figure to remind them all of the greater priorities at stake: of the chance for Europe to show real leadership following the perpetual crises over failed treaties and institutional navel-gazing; the chance to gain a major strategic economic first-mover advantage over its 21st century competitors in China, India and the US; and of the imperative of taking the measures which are needed to avoid the very worst effects of climate change.

Ed Miliband should make some waves amongst his European counterparts this month and stand up for the ambitious climate deal in Europe we need.

2. Cancel Kingsnorth and UK support for unabated coal

There aren’t many issues these days which drive people to camp-out in protest. Yet the proposed Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent is rapidly becoming a new symbolic rallying call for the environmental movement in the UK.

‘Unabated’ or ‘dirty’ coal is set to replace nuclear power as the totemic enemy of green politics. By far the most polluting way of making energy, it is unfortunately one of the cheapest and most readily available, and is making a comeback in the European energy system in a big way. 50 new coal power plants are planned in Europe over the coming years, costing an estimated €1.5 trillion.

Unabated coal (coal power stations not fitted with as yet unproven carbon capture and storage technology) cannot be part of Europe’s long-term energy solution. If this new reliance on coal goes ahead, it will become near impossible to meet whatever targets we set in the UK or in Europe to cut carbon emissions.

So cancelling the government’s support for the Kingsnorth power station, signalling a move away from coal and towards renewable sources of energy, is sound environmental policy.

But with the rising prominence of Kingsnorth as an issue amongst supporters of green NGOs (who number far in excess the members of the Labour Party), a change in policy would also be a major populist progressive moment. If Labour is serious about re-joining the dots between progressive campaigners across society and beyond the reaches of the party machine, the environmental movement is a pretty good place to start – and this a symbolic way for Ed Miliband, also drafting the party’s next manifesto, to start doing it.

3. Focus on energy efficiency savings for poor households this winter

But if policy to tackle climate change is to win the support it needs from the wider population, it must be made relevant to the lives of ordinary people who aren’t out campaigning for it. So rising family fuel bills must be a priority for the new department.

Ed Miliband must show the government is taking clear steps to protect the poorest in society from the impact of higher bills, in line with Labour’s new message on fairness. Emergency meetings with energy company CEOs behind the closed-doors of Number 10 mean nothing to people who notice no perceptible change in their own circumstances as a result.

Meanwhile, well-meaning calls for a windfall tax on the profits of the energy companies which have been made by Chris Leslie for Fabian Review and which have been subject of an energetic campaign from our friends at Compass are not the answer either. A one-off tax might show the government is doing something practical, providing funds to ease fuel bills this winter, and would likely be rather popular in the current climate of corporate-bashing. But it will not help people much next year.

Instead, Ed Miliband should draw up a package to support households, with priority measures for those on lower incomes, to increase their energy efficiency. The IPPR are running an excellent 'Green Streets' pilot project with British Gas that should probably be adopted wholesale – based on a new network of neighbourhood energy advisors and financial support. They estimate that spending £500 million on neighbourhood advisors could save around £4.6 billion from UK energy bills.

This won’t be quite as sexy as a tax on corporate greed, but with the right presentation, the financial and carbon savings over the medium and long-term for families and the country should speak for themselves and show evidence of a government committed to tackling the social and environmental consequences of our energy use.

Before the next election, there will be many more issues to struggle through, but the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change would be well-served to put these at the top of his to-do list.

Tim Gore is policy officer for Climate Action Network Europe and a former Fabian staff member, writing in a personal capacity.

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