Saturday, 22 April 2017

UK General Election 2017: Let's Talk About Labour's Current Energy and Environment Policy Platform

One of the issues that forms part of my framework for helping me to choose which party to vote for on June 8th is Energy and the Environment. I must confess up until a few days ago I had not much of an idea about Labour's current approach to Energy policy other than Corbyn was keen to look into the feasibility of renationalising the utilities industries and investing in low emission buses which would be done once bus service provision is brought back under local authority control. So I was pleased to find that Labour has produced a comprehensive policy platform (http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/energy) aimed at helping to turn the UK into a "low carbon economy" so that we can protect the Earth for future generations and act in the interests of "the 60 million, not the Big 6 energy companies". Here are some of my thoughts on key policies from the plan:
  • Labour wants to ensure that the UK plays a leading role in ensuring there is real action on climate change. For them, that means committing to cutting carbon emissions and honouring the Paris 2015 Agreement on Climate Change in full. The Paris Agreement commits every signee country to creating policies that reduce global temperatures to "well below 2C above pre-industrial levels". The EU as a whole are committed to reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 and Labour wants to keep this target in place post-Brexit. I am very pleased to see this firm commitment to retaining the Paris Climate Change Agreement and EU targets as they are key to shaping the future direction of the UK. 
  • Labour have pledged to get local community action groups and schools involved with climate change action by funding the Woodland Trust plan to "plant 64 million native broadleaf trees in 10 years". The broadleaf trees would help to reduce flood risk in Lincolnshire towns such as Boston and provide homes for native and migrating wildlife. 
  • Labour will reinstate the Department of Energy and Climate Change within the first month of coming into office; that means that a new team would need to be in place by the middle of July 2017. Having a dedicated Department should help speed up the planning and drafting of future energy and environment policies. 
  • Labour wants to preside over a "green revolution". They will produce an Industrial Strategy that is comprehensive and bold. Proposals include the creation of a £500bn National Investment Bank and regional development banks which Labour claims will help to facilitate the creation of 300,000 new jobs in the UK renewables sector as well as investing in renewable energy and low carbon research and development projects designed to "push down technology costs" in the longer term. 
  • It's unfortunate the Conservative Government has committed to privatising the existing Green Investment Bank (established in 2012 under the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Government to fund green projects by selling it to Macquarie for £2.3bn), with even the Lib Dem's Vince Cable (who founded the bank) commenting that UK taxpayers may be ripped off because green assets which will be worth more in the future are being sold cheaply. Labour has criticised the privatisation process and has questioned Macquarie's commitment to green energy projects alongside the Lib Dems and Greens. According to the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/19/green-investment-bank-to-be-sold-off-in-23bn-deal-reports) the Green Investment Bank currently funds directly or via third party management 85 projects in the UK, including "an energy efficient street lighting project in Barking and Dagenham...a wind farm in Dumfries and Galloway and a biomass plant at Port Talbot". Labour believes such projects should remain in public hands and to use the creation of new banks to fund new green energy projects.
  • Labour is committed to setting a UK target on electricity, boldly promising that the UK will get 65% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. In order to achieve this target, there would need to be not only a massive expansion of wind and solar power companies and wind and solar farms but also hydroelectric power plants, biomass plants and looking into the potential of geothermal energy and hydrogen and fuel cells. 
  • Labour understands that transitioning to a low-carbon economy will hit certain businesses hard. So they have committed to funding "decarbonising strategies for energy-intensive industries" like ceramics and steel. The amount hasn't been stated in this plan (I'm guessing it would come in part from National Investment Bank funding) but this may be made clearer in Labour's upcoming election Manifesto. 
  • Labour wants to upskill and reskill people at a local level in order to allow them to have the best chance of getting jobs in the renewables sector and low-carbon industries. They will introduce new college courses and apprenticeships and ensure they are accessible to women, people from the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community and disabled people. I'm hoping that some of the courses could be delivered in the evening so as to allow workers to retrain if they wish and that the courses will be state-funded, at least in part, under the plans for a National Education Service. 
  • Labour contends that the Infrastructure Act (IA) 2015 does not contain suitable provisions to help the UK to transition to a low-carbon economy. The IA committed the UK to maximising the recovery of North Sea oil and gas reserves but research conducted by Nature has suggested that 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay underground if nations are to reduce global temperatures by at least 1.5C.  There's an indication in the policy document that a future Labour Government would attempt to repeal the law on the basis that more fossil fuel extraction in the North Sea would lead to the UK missing its Paris Climate Change agreed targets. Labour wants to end fossil fuel extraction by phasing out coal power stations (by the early 2020s- i.e. 2022) and banning fracking schemes across the UK. 
  • I like Labour's suggestion of engaging in discussion with trade union representatives from declining fossil fuel industries so they can be encouraged to look at ways of contributing to the renewables sector. Oil and gas engineers could work as wind turbine engineers after a period of re-training and administrative staff can transfer over to renewable sector firms relatively easily. Firms should be encouraged to set up in areas where there is a pool of potential talent- e.g. the North East. 
  • Labour wants to empower decision making on energy projects at a local level, allowing communities to have a greater say in the planning system. The policy document points out that the Conservatives have introduced acts such as the Housing and Planning Act 2016 that have "eroded protections for the natural environment and for local communities." Labour believes that it would be better to scrap the review of judicial costs so that communities have "greater access to justice when governments make unlawful decisions"- e.g. on failure to take action to meet air pollution targets. 
  • Labour will "democratise" the energy market by encouraging "the growth of over 200 local energy companies" within the next 5 years. Consumers could save money by choosing companies that generate energy in a more efficient way (as renewable energy schemes expand and evolve, production costs generally reduce). Labour would endorse the creation of "not for profit, public companies", making them central to a transformative energy plan. Labour also supports the development of 1000 community energy co-operatives, who will be able to sell energy generated directly to local communities with their regional development bank available to assist with grid connection costs. This sounds good in theory but will all of the funding come from the National Investment Bank as is suggested in this policy document or would additional revenue streams need to be found- e.g. raising taxes on the Big 6 energy firms?
  • Labour wants to reform the energy storage market by investing in new clean-energy storage technologies and introduce a "Clean Power Mechanism" to replace the Capacity Market Mechanism. This would look at placing low carbon energy resource capacity before high carbon energy resource capacity. Labour believes that creating Smart Electricity Grids for example could save the UK taxpayer between £2.5bn and £12bn! 
  • Labour wants to place the emphasis back on home insulation to help reduce household energy use. They plan to do this by fully funding a "National Home Insulation Programme" to bring 4 million homes up to energy efficient standard B or C by 2022. Labour claim the overall cost of the NHI programme will be between £1.8bn and £2.5bn yet the total saving by 4 million households is estimated to be £4.9bn. Labour also promise to upgrade all rented housing to Standard B or C by 2022. I believe it's a good idea to replace and upgrade insulation in social housing, housing occupied by those over 65 and families with young children in the private rented sector and if the NHI programme helps to provide employment and apprenticeship opportunities for more working class young people, even better.  
  • Labour's 1 million homes promise includes a commitment to ensuring they are built to the "passive-haus" standards  The cost per semi-detached house would be around £5,000 (Zero Carbon Trust 2014 report). 
  • Labour will "clean up the transport system", believing that air pollution deaths can be halved by 2030 if there are more public electric and hydrogen buses and cars on the road. Labour would also encourage town and city councils to improve their cycle lines and fund more cycle hiring schemes. 
  • Labour is committed to fully protecting and implementing EU directives, including the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive. As 80% of our environmental protections are derived from the EU, this is an important commitment to keep. Nobody would want to see native bird species endangered or endangered heathland eroded unnecessarily.
  • Labour's "corridors of nature" proposal to help "better connect protected nature sites" does sound very interesting but voters need to see concrete evidence as to how it could be enacted and what the cost of establishing and protecting these corridors would be to local authorities already struggling with cuts to their funding from central government. 
  • Labour wants to ban neonictotinoid pesticides (currently the most commonly used insecticide in the world) to help protect native bee species and encourage bee numbers to recover by planting bee-friendly plants such as China Asters, Cornflowers, Sunflowers, Wallflowers and Burdocks in parks, urban spaces and in wild meadows across the UK. 
The Labour platform on Energy and the Environment posited in the policy document is pretty comprehensive. Certain proposals sound very pleasing on paper such as the commitment to create 300,000 jobs in the renewables sector over the course of the next Parliament or establishing "corridors of nature" to help protect our native bats and butterflies but I'm sceptical as to whether those policies can be achieved in practice. It may take longer than a five year term to foster the level of growth needed in the renewables sector to create anywhere near 100,000 jobs let alone 300,000. Local authorities will need more funding from central government to increase their own spending on parks and green spaces. At the moment, Lincolnshire County Council only receives £88 per head, making us the third lowest funded county in the country, whereas our neighbouring Nottinghamshire County Council gets £119 per head. So it's easier for Notts CC to spend more money on green spaces and wildlife corridors than Lincs CC.

Other policy proposals, such as the creation of the National Home Insulation Programme and the planting of 64 million broadleaf trees appear to be much easier to deliver in practice and would be broadly speaking, popular. The Woodland Trust have already put time and money into designing the 64 million broadleaf trees planting project proposal and all Labour needs to do is to provide funding to the Woodland Trust to make it happen. I do believe that Labour are right to focus on aiming to turn the UK economy into a low-carbon one and using the National Investment Bank and regional development banks funding mechanisms is the right way to encourage the growth of the renewable energy sector in the UK, The proposal to help create 200 local energy companies and 1000 community energy co-operatives across the UK could possibly lead to more jobs being created in regions which have experienced economic decline, such as the North East. That's nothing to be sniffed at.

Labour's fight to tackle Air Pollution: 

There are indications from SERA, Labour's Environment campaign (and the only group officially affiliated with Labour) that Corbyn wants to go further than the policies outlined already by the Energy and Environment policy document. SERA has a history of holding governments to account for their failure to take action on air pollution; in 2013 SERA managed to stop the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition government from abandoning the National Air Quality Monitoring Network. Now they're lobbying the Government to help establish a new "Clean Air Act" and have created the "A Breath of Fresh Air" campaign to facilitate this. With more than 40,000 people in the UK dying as a result of polluted air, mostly in cities and the economic cost being £54bn, action does need to be taken and taken soon. The Clean Air Act would enshrine EU Directives on air pollution, including the 2008 Air Quality Directive, into UK law so that air quality can continue to be monitored and that any future government can be fully held to account legally for failing to meet air pollution targets post-Brexit. You can get more information on how you can get involved with the "A Breath of Fresh Air" campaign here: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/uksera/pages/20/attachments/original/1475887129/a-breath-of-fresh-air-a-clean-air-act-for-the-21st-century.pdf?1475887129.

Geraint Davies, MP for Swansea West introduced a private members Clean Air Bill on April 19th 2017.  The bill is designed to help the UK reach World Health Organisation standards on air quality by tackling pollution in cities, ports and airports. It includes proposals to recall and refit diesel cars and fiscal incentives and scrappage schemes for diesel cars that cannot be adapted. These particular proposals would be funded in large part by car manufacturers. Davies' bill also includes a proposal to create "a national electric and hydrogen refuelling network" and make local authorities responsible for measuring and monitoring air quality levels, which should be made available to the public. Local authorities would also be given the power to introduce pollution charges. You can learn more about the Clean Air Bill here: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2016-17/cleanair.html.

The Tories have decided to apply to the high court to delay publication of their air pollution plans and that's after judges mandated ministers to amend their plan so that the measures contained within it were tougher to tackle "illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution" (read more here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/21/government-attempts-to-shelve-air-quality-plan-until-after-election?CMP=twt_gu). I think the Government's delaying tactics are shameful and voters should be allowed to see the air pollution plans in their entirety before making their decision at the ballot box. However, as usual, the Tories aren't being particularly helpful. I suspect the measures are not going to be robust enough for us not to fall foul of EU standards once again. Hmm...

Improvements/Clarifications Needed?

In order to clarify/improve Labour's policy offering, I'd like to see policy actions which will help to strengthen environmental protections in the UK should Brexit happen in 2019. Would Labour protect heathland and other endangered habitats near conurbations completely from housing developers? From perusing Mary Creagh's MP for Wakefield and Chair of the Environment Audit Committee's article (http://www.sera.org.uk/brexit_a_new_environmental_protection_act) it seems to me that Labour may be in favour of creating a new Environmental Protection Act to safeguard existing protections but what additional protections would need to be included any future bill?

There needs to be clarification on how Labour can help rural and coastal businesses to thrive in a post Brexit environment at the same time as putting measures forward to develop the low-carbon economy. Farmers and fishermen alike do need to be given full guidance so they can make appropriate business decisions- e,g. whether subsidies will be maintained post 2020 or what kind of catch allowances will be negotiated with EU and non-EU neighbours. There's also currently a question over whether fish processing workers in coastal constituencies such as Grimsby will be subject to visa restrictions or lose any employment protections (50% of them come from the EU). Labour are against any erosion of employment protections so it should be a no-brainer to come out and say that EU citizens currently working in the UK will retain the same employment protections as their British citizen counterparts post Brexit and it'd be good to make it crystal clear that it would be the case for all non-EU citizens too.

Will EU citizens and businesses and non EU, non British Citizens and businesses be available to access any research and development funding given to the renewables sector? Will there be any funding avaliable for PhD and fellowship positions in renewable energy research and development units at British universities, something that the Conservatives seem to have committed to more broadly in their Industrial Strategy?

I suspect that a number of these questions will be answered in Labour's forthcoming Election Manifesto, which I shall be reading with interest. For now, I can say that I'm impressed with Labour's renewed commitment to protecting and fully implementing EU environmental directives and respecting the Paris Agreement on Climate Change targets. The National Home Insulation Programme would directly benefit households and the commitment to banning fracking is popular with environmental activists and homeowners in rural areas alike. I'm pleased to see many well thought-out policy proposals which will help the UK transition to the low-carbon economy it needs to be in the future. Change can sometimes be chaotic but in this case may be for the best. Let's hope that these policies receive public attention. It's time to discuss the future of energy production in this country and it's time to look at ways of safeguarding our endangered habitats and animal and plant species further. The fundamental question is this: are we brave enough as a country to consider implementation of some of these policies?