Chris Whiteside: Why Britain’s first new coal mine for decades should open in the ward I represent

23 Feb

Chris Whiteside MBE is County Councillor for the Egremont North & St Bees division of Cumbria County Council, and also Deputy chairman (political and campaigning) of North West England region of the Conservative party.

ConservativeHome readers will know of the controversy over proposals for Britain’s first new coal mine for decades, in Copeland, West Cumbria.

I am county councillor for the division which includes most of the application site.

Almost to a man and woman people in the vicinity are in favour, while almost all the opposition comes from people living many miles away. The most vocal opponents live on the far side of the deepest and longest lakes, and the highest mountain, in England.

Copeland

Copeland moved from the red to the blue column two years before the rest of the former “red wall” seats, but is typical of traditional communities in Northern England which voted Labour for generations but finally lost patience with that party while it was led by Jeremy Corbyn.

When elected to Cumbria County council, I was the first Conservative councillor in history to represent parts of my division. Voters in West Cumbria who elected Conservative councillors like me, and Conservative MPs like Trudy Harrison and “Workington Man” Mark Jenkinson, lent us their votes. We have no more automatic right to their continued support than our Labour predecessors had. Local people expect us to fight harder for them than those predecessors did.

We will.

The historical context

I was a student during the 84-85 miners’ strike. With Iain Dale, I was a ringleader of a campaign to sack a Labour student union president who misused used union resources to support the strike.

I now have more sympathy for comments made to me in 84-85 by students from traditional mining communities – like the area I now represent – than either I or those who made them would have imagined possible at the time. Particularly about affluent middle-class people from many miles away trying to take jobs from a less affluent community which they knew little about and probably couldn’t find on a map.

Woodhouse Colliery is expected to provide 518 jobs and fifty apprenticeships in a community which includes some of the worst pockets of deprivation in Britain. Spending will also boost the local economy and supply chains, on ONS multipliers providing a further estimated 380 jobs.

The facts about the mine

The proposed mine will not produce coal to burn for energy. It is specifically restricted, in the proposal itself and planning conditions, to mining coking coal to make steel, mainly for the British and European steel industries.

If you want more renewable energy, you need steel – It takes lots of steel to make a wind turbine. Britain needs steel for many other purposes too.

Currently there is no economic way to make new steel without coking coal. More than 85 per cent of scrap steel in Europe is already recycled so there’s limited scope to increase the 39 per cent of steel currently coming from recycling.

Ironically, the same Lib-Dem MP who leads opposition to the mine also calls for more steel to be made in Britain. Only a Lib-Dem could so comprehensively face both ways at once as to call for more steel to be made here while effectively working to ensure it’s made with imported coal. Most coal used by British and European steelmakers today comes from the USA or Russia.

Technology will change. There may be improvements which remove need for coal: or in carbon capture technology to use coal without damaging the environment. But the steel which this country needs in the immediate future will be made with metallurgical coal.

Better to make that steel in Britain and Europe with coal mined in an environmentally sensitive way here, than to use steel made with coal from Russia and America, often strip-mined in the Appalachians and shipped over the Atlantic.

Council votes about the mine

Councillors have voted for the mine three times: all three votes demonstrated cross-party support among Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and Independent councillors. Two votes were unanimous. At the third meeting, one councillor from each of the three parties went against but there was a four-to-one margin in favour including majorities of votes cast from each party.

It’s nonsense to suggest that councillors who voted for the mine hadn’t considered the environment, didn’t know what they were doing, or can’t be trusted to make the decision. Such comments are an attack on local democracy.

The council’s officers went through the proposals in exhaustive detail during a process which lasted literally for years. Each report to committee ran to hundreds of pages describing all the objections and every imaginable issue, including lengthy consideration of the impact on Britain’s carbon footprint. A hundred conditions were attached, including a time limit of 2049, the year before Britain’s target to go carbon neutral. Another condition limits greenhouse gas emissions.

Before voting on the plans, councillors listened to hours of presentations from officers and representations from objectors and supporters.

Most of those who attack the committee sound like the bloke in the pub who, because he’s read an account in a tabloid newspaper of a court case lasting weeks, is confident he knows better than the jury who sat through the whole thing.

The latest developments

When Robert Jenrick declined to “call in” the mine and said the decision should rest with Cumbria County Council, most people expected permission would swiftly be granted in line with the October decision. Instead the council is putting it back to committee for a fourth time.

The objection the council received to granting permission is public domain because the group responsible, South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) – published it on its website.

SLACC argue the decision should be revisited because, since it was made, the advisory committee on climate change published proposals for the UK’s sixth carbon budget.

That document comprises recommendations to ministers, as those who study it will quickly find. Although anyone reading the letter from SLACC’s solicitors who didn’t know better might get the impression that it’s already legally binding, it isn’t.

Fifty Conservative parliamentarians and local government leaders, including most of the MPs representing Cumbria, the mayors of Copeland and Tees Valley, and many “Northern Research Group” MPs wrote to the Leader of Cumbria County Council on 18th February supporting the mine. Their letter made a convincing case that SLACC’s arguments misrepresent the sixth carbon budget.

Conclusion

This saga raises deeply concerning issues. It shows how vulnerable Britain’s planning system can be to high profile, articulate pressure groups even if they have negligible local support.

Anyone who has a serious objection to a proposal should be entitled to have their concerns properly investigated, once. But when similar points are brought up again and again, there comes a point when we are witnessing the attempt to frustrate a democratic decision through delay.

But delay is not the best way to decide whether planning proposals should go ahead. Delay from those who can’t win a democratic vote but use every trick in the book to obstruct what they cannot defeat is the worst of all.

George Freeman: The industrial strategy reforms I led helped to deliver Britain’s vaccine success. Now for the next phase.

1 Feb

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

The combination of Covid-19 and the Crash of 2008 have left this country facing the most serious crisis in our public finances since 1776. Unless we make the post-Brexit, post-Covid recovery a transformational renaissance of enterprise & innovation on a par with that unlocked by Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, we risk a decade of high debts, rising interest rates and slow growth.

We have a truly unique opportunity before us. As a science and innovation superpower, with the City of London now outside the EU’s rules for the first time in nearly fifty years, we can unlock a New Elizabethan era of growth – with Britain a world-leader in global commercialisation of science, technology and innovation. It is what our entrepreneurs have been crying out for. Now is the moment to make it happen.

That’s why I’m delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help set up the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister & the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation, and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the Taskforce will consider and recommend “quick wins” to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit post-Covid recovery.

Rest assured: there will also be no big report or a thousand pages of footnotes to wade through. We will be crowd-sourcing the best ideas from the business community and the entrepreneurs and innovators who are the engine of our economy.

The Prime Minister has asked me to bring my career experience in business starting & financing high growth bioscience technology companies as well as my experience as Minister in Health, BEIS and Transport leading our groundbreaking Industrial Strategy for Life Science which has paid such dividends this year.

The reforms I led in our Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, MHRA and NICE reform, Accelerated Access procurement have been fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.

We now need to make Brexit & Covid the catalyst for bold reforms to unlock big UK opportunities for recovery & GlobalBritain across a range of high-growth sectors such as those I have worked on extensively as both entrepreneur and Minister:?

  • LifeScience: harnessing the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health & innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials & value-based pricing.
  • Nutraceuticals: health-promoting “superfoods”, cannabis medicines.
  • AgriTech: smart clean green twenty-first farming technology like the blight resistant potato banned by the EU.
  • CleanTech: new biofuels, Carbon Capture & Storage & digital “smart grids” to reward households & businesses for generating more and using less.
  • BioSecurity: harnessing the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal & human biosecurity.
  • Digital: removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework.
  • Hydrogen: using the full power of Gov to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics.
  • Mobility: making the UK a global test-bed for new mobility technologies,

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent 15 years working in life sciences around the Cambridge cluster, financing innovation. I saw time and time again how the best British entrepreneurs and their companies struggled to build business to scale here in the UK.

So often we have invented the technologies of the future and failed to commercialise them effectively.

After several years working as the Government Life Science Adviser, I published my report for the Fresh Start Group on The EU impact on Life Sciences: Avoiding the Global Slow Lane.

Three years before Brexit, the report was the first to highlight the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ and the increasing tide of ‘anti- biotech’ legislation – driven by a combination of the German Green Party, Catholic anti-science and lowest commons denominator regulation by the “precautionary principle” which was having a damaging effect on the Bioscience Economy and risked condemning the EU – and by extension the UK – to the global slow lane in biotechnology.

The report set out how the genomic revolution was beginning to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture to help generate huge economic, social and political dividends for mankind. Billions of people were being liberated from the scourge of insufficient food, medicine and energy. The main threat to that? The EU’s hostile regulatory framework.

This was seen clearly in numerous case studies. At the time, the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF and major U.S firm Monsanto to announce their withdrawal from Europe in agricultural research and development. My report argued that unless something was done soon, other companies would follow suit, with dire consequences for the UK Life Science sector.

The report recommended a shift away from the increasingly widely used risk-based ‘precautionary Principle’ and greater freedoms around data protection, using public healthcare systems to help accelerate early access to medical innovations, and for the UK to be able to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops.

The UK’s departure from the laws and requirements of the EU provides us with a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign and improve our approach.

This new Taskforce, therefore, is emphatically not another long-term Whitehall de-regulation ‘initiative’. Neither is this is about cutting workers’ or environmental rights that we rightly guaranteed in the 2019 election manifesto.

It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.

But we must think innovatively about supporting businesses to start and grow, and make the most of the cutting-edge technologies and sectors we nurture in our universities for global impact. For example, why don’t we use our freedom to pioneer new disease and drought- resistant crops, and use our aid budget and variable tariffs to help create new global markets for UK Technology Transfer?

We won’t unlock a new era of the UK as an Innovation Nation generating the technologies and companies of tomorrow with technocratic tinkering. We need bold leadership, clear commercial vision and reforms to support innovation and enterprise. The two go hand in hand. We won’t unlock an innovation economy without an enterprise society. So we will need to look at tax and regulatory incentives for high risk start/ups like the “New Deal for New Businesses” I proposed back in 2010 to drive recovery after the Crash.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Together we must seize it.

Does the UK really have the political will or state capacity to hit Johnson’s ‘ambitious’ Net Zero targets?

4 Dec

This morning’s papers feature the latest developments in the Prime Minister’s green reset. Today, the headline is his pledge to reduce British carbon emissions by 68 per cent by 2030.

As the FT notes, hitting this target will “will require restructuring a significant portion of the economy”. Making half of all cars on the road electric by the end of the decade, as the Daily Telegraph reports, would be just the start.

So far, there hasn’t been much pushback against this “ambitious new target”. This is perhaps not surprising, since we are still at the stage where the Government is doling out cash. Visions of the ‘green industrial revolution‘ can dance safely before MPs eyes.

But there are reasons to expect that this won’t last. Not because of any widespread disagreement on the underlying science, but because it will require a lot of long-term infrastructure development of the sort that the United Kingdom has become increasingly bad at.

The goal for widespread electric cars, to pick just one example, would mean installing a comprehensive national network of charging points on a par with the existing one for petrol stations. This is probably doable, but would you bet on a nation that just ‘rolled back’ its plans to deliver a national high-speed broadband network?

According to the National Audit Office’s new report on Net Zero, delivering it in the time now set down in law “will require wide-ranging changes across society and the economy at a pace which leaves little room for delay”. Yet as Rachel Wolf noted in a recent piece for this site:

“Our economy and lives are built off copious amounts of affordable energy. It is the main reason we were able to escape the destitution of the past. A life unimaginable to even the elite in the Eighteenth Century is now accessible to nearly all. Therefore, any successful programme to reduce emissions must understand that people will not go backwards. Policies must work within the grain of people’s lives – not rewire them.”

If the Government (or the next one) doesn’t want to end up having to choose between brute-forcing its way towards Net Zero through policies such as pricing the low-paid out of international travel or eating meat (goodbye levelling up), it needs to lay the foundations for a smooth and efficient transition to greener systems which are just as effective as the current ones – and to do so at the very moment it has just used up much of its fiscal wriggle-room fighting Covid-19.

Others have pointed out how badly the pandemic has exposed the decay of British state capacity. But it didn’t take a global crisis to know that British politicians are deeply averse to making important long-term infrastructure decisions when there is any pain involved. We haven’t found the will to expand Heathrow, or Felixtowe, and are only limping towards an incomplete high-speed railway. Nobody expect the Prime Minister’s mooted Irish Sea Bridge to get built, and MPs continue to mutiny against any attempt to solve the housing crisis by actually building enough houses.

Would you bet on such a political culture seeing through (let alone successfully) an attempt to deliver “wide-ranging changes across society and the economy at a pace which leaves little room for delay”?

Ed Birkett and Benedict McAleenan: Hydrogen holds huge potential for British industry – here’s how to achieve it

28 Oct

Ed Birkett is Research Fellow in the Energy & Environment Unit at Policy Exchange and Benedict McAleenan is Senior Adviser at Policy Exchange.

In the fight against climate change, there are no silver bullets. We won’t solve it through technology alone, nor by telling people to mend their sinful ways. But there are some potential game changers, and among those is hydrogen.

The Prime Minister is reportedly a convert to the potential of hydrogen as a pioneering fuel that could kick-start a green recovery. As well as helping a recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, for some regions it would reinvigorate industry after decades of decline, delivering on the “levelling up” agenda.

In 2018, Policy Exchange explored the potential for hydrogen as a fuel of the future and highlighted the opportunities in northern industrial hubs. However, there’s a risk that our politicians will get carried away. It has huge potential but also very real limits, and there’s a danger of government investments going wrong.

Hydrogen isn’t the right answer everywhere

Hydrogen has huge potential as a low-carbon fuel and in revitalising industrial areas of the UK, making it a natural focus for the Government’s net zero and levelling up agendas. Our report, Fuelling the Future, described how hydrogen is widely used in industrial processes, including removing sulphur from fuels, manufacturing fertiliser, and even producing margarine. But most of this is hydrogen produced from natural gas, which releases carbon, leading to the nickname “grey hydrogen”.

There are already pilots underway to trial “green” hydrogen supply and Britain is a global leader in the technology needed for electrolysis (producing hydrogen from water using electricity). In the future, with lots of cheap, clean electricity from offshore wind farms, there is huge potential to scale up hydrogen in the UK, benefitting British manufacturing companies whilst decarbonising refineries and chemical plants.

Once the costs of hydrogen fall, it could be used in the blast furnaces of Port Talbot to replace coal and to secure jobs in our nationally strategic steel industry. It could then be expanded to other industries including glassmaking and manufacturing electronics.

But it is heavy transport that perhaps offers the biggest long-term potential for low-carbon hydrogen. Batteries look likely to dominate the market for passenger cars, with manufacturers like Nissan and Tesla offering vehicles with increasingly longer ranges and shorter charge times.

However, for heavy transport, including lorries, planes, buses and ships, the weight of batteries could be prohibitive. In these applications, hydrogen offers a solution. Once the right infrastructure is in place, hydrogen vehicles will offer fast refuelling whilst minimising weight. Several British manufacturers are champing at the bit to deliver hydrogen-powered public transport.

Despite this potential, hydrogen is not a silver bullet. When compared to petrol, diesel or natural gas, it is much less energy dense, which means it needs to be stored under high pressure, increasing costs and complexity. For many use cases, hydrogen’s Achilles’ Heel is that it is inefficient when compared to using electricity because there are many more conversion steps in the chain. This means that a hydrogen-powered car will use twice as much energy as a battery-powered car to travel the same distance.

Some have touted hydrogen as key to the UK’s energy security, ending our reliance on foreign fuels. The UK is a leading manufacturer of electrolysers, for instance, which produce hydrogen from electricity and water, which means that we could use UK wind farms to power electrolysers, generating hydrogen.

However, based on current forecasts, the bulk of the UK’s low-carbon hydrogen is expected to come from natural gas. The UK’s declining gas reserves means that we increasingly rely on imported gas, so a rapid expansion of hydrogen risks tying us into a fuel that we will increasingly import from countries such as Qatar.

Hydrogen hubs are the right place to start

None of this means that hydrogen doesn’t have an instrumental role to play in a Net Zero UK, but we need to be careful and to consider these challenges.

First, as we argued in 2018, we should create “hydrogen hubs”. This will support innovation in the areas that already use high-carbon hydrogen such as refineries and heavy industry.

Helpfully, demand for hydrogen is concentrated in areas that the Government wants to “level up”, such as Humberside, Teesside and Falkirk. These industrial centres can also deliver economies of scale and therefore cost savings, assuming that government carries some of the development risk in return for regional growth.

Second, these areas should pioneer wider uses of hydrogen, exploiting their engineering skills base to innovate and learn. The Government has already announced that the first “hydrogen transport hub” will be based in Teesside. The Teesside hub will be a testbed for hydrogen vehicles, including boats, trains and planes, following Policy Exchange’s 2018 recommendations.

Finally, the Government should engage the market wherever possible. The success of offshore wind in the UK is a combination of private sector innovation and Government support to push costs down. The same principles should apply to hydrogen. Efficient markets also keep options open if hydrogen remains too costly and other technologies emerge that are better and cheaper.

None of this is bad news. Acknowledging hydrogen’s limits allows us to design the best approach that puts British industrial towns back in the vanguard of an industrial revolution. It may not be the single answer to our future fuel needs, but it has huge potential.

At our Conservative Party Conference fringe event a few weeks ago, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen called for the Government to “put hydrogen on the same footing and on the same platform as other technologies like electrification and batteries”. The Teesside hydrogen transport hub is the first step to achieving this, but there’s lots more still to do.

Alex Game: Students are the key to environmental progress – but we need to lose the tribalism in our debates

9 Oct

Alex Game is a Campus Coordinator with the British Conservation Alliance. He studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is the founder of the British Conservation Alliance Society.

With a new academic year now upon us, around a million students have returned to their campuses after a strange summer, to say the least. This is where environmentalism has to be forged and nurtured in the very near future. Student activism within our universities is an important part of our democracy. It’s a perfect environment for students to gain confidence in their own ideas, and debate with those whose opinion differs from their own. This is not only because they are usually echo chambers of one’s ideas and views, but they give students confidence to explore different opinions that they wouldn’t probably hear if they weren’t on a university campus.

It is for this reason that I have in recent months become a lot more pro-active in this area. I have joined the British Conservation Alliance (BCA) as a campus co-ordinator and set up my own BCA society at my university, Manchester Metropolitan University, both to promote the BCA’s ideas and policies and to help bring about change on a broader scale.

The BCA is important in this conversation about the environment because we offer students an alternative, not just the same anarchism that most students seem to want to follow. This is why we have set up an extensive network of campus leaders at over 30 UK universities to promote our ideas. Environmentalism is something I have always felt passionately about. But I sat on my hands for far too long. Then, I stumbled across the BCA and, as they say… the rest is history. Students are essential to environmentalism, because we are going to be dealing with the mistakes made by past generations unless real change is made soon.

Recently we have seen Extinction Rebellion (XR) causing havoc in Londonlimiting our free press and even a flash mob outside Buckingham palace. They are asking the Government to employ reckless policies, such as committing to net-zero by 2025. A policy such as this simply is impossible. We do not have the capacity to achieve this yet and our economy isn’t robust enough either. The process of reaching net-zero has to be a gradual process achieved through market-solutions, the BCA supports the Government’s legislation of reaching net-zero by 2050.

XR doesn’t really propose many policies; its activists just shout and scream about us wishing to turn green at a ridiculous rate. XR’s actions are often not productive or helping save the planet, it is more often than not just turning people away from environmentalism completely. Not only that, but when policy is proposed by the Government, it is shouted down as “not going far enough”. This must not be the case going forward. We must encourage any change no matter how small or incremental it is. Of course, we can always encourage our government to go further but we must not criticise it when it does commit to real change.

The BCA over recent months has released a book called Green Market Revolution. This states simply how we can change our economy to a green one, not recklessly but carefully and intuitively. It includes real ideas and policy propositions that can help governments understand what they have got to do to. These policies will help turn our economies green and achieve carbon neutrality through market mechanisms such as clean tax cuts or “green loans” for businesses aiming to pursue solutions which are advancing to our goal of preserving the environment for future generations to come.

The conversation about our environment is well overdue and students need to be at the heart of it. They will be the ones suffering if we don’t take real action soon. They are also the ones who will be making decisions in future governments. This means we must make people aware now of what they can achieve in government towards helping preserve our environment.

But we must soon come to a cross-party consensus on how to move forward on our environmental issues and end the tribalism. The sooner we do that, the quicker we can act and more effectively.

Mark Jenkinson: The case for coal

21 Sep

Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.

Earlier this week saw the publication of a decision by the Secretary of State to reject the application by Banks Mining for an opencast coal mine on the Northumberland coast, to which environmental campaigners have reacted with glee – with Friends of the Earth saying “Coal mines must be consigned to the history books if we are going to avoid climate breakdown”. It is this statement that I think is particularly damaging to our shared aim on net-zero by 2050.

It is worth remembering that the Highthorn development was a huge opencast on a site without previous activity, and that the planning inspector that gave the original permission made the point that the proposal would have an adverse impact on landscape character of substantial significance. Slight changes to the weight given to other elements by the Secretary of State tipped the sensitive planning balance. This decision should not be lead us to assumptions on other proposals, such as West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery in Copeland next door to my Workington constituency.

While we have rightly committed to eliminating thermal coal from our electricity production, coking (or metallurgical) coal is an entirely different matter. It is important that we understand the difference. The UK and Europe import 16.4Mt of coking coal every year, with the CO₂ emissions from its transport five to seven times higher than if it was produced closer to the point of use.

Economic growth and demand in growth for steel are undeniably linked. Our plan for growth will necessarily bring a demand for steel, and we should place much heavier weight on the use of UK produced steel. The low-carbon energy technologies that we will rely on in the future – without exception – are underpinned by steel. That steel production requires coking coal for the foreseeable future. Any increase in UK steel consumption without domestic production of that steel and its process components will result in increases in our offshored and domestic carbon footprints.

Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF) are often portrayed as the green saviour of steel production, but aside from the obvious questions around the high energy requirements and where that electricity will come from, EAFs are still not fossil-free – requiring the addition of coking coal, albeit in much reduced quantities.

The primary feedstock for EAF is recycled steel, and while crude figures suggest that the UK is almost self-sufficient in scrap steel, the EU and World markets are not. This fails to take account of the fact that the scrap steel has be of exactly the right composition to make the requisite end product, so most EAF produced steels are a mixture of scrap steel and Direct Reduced Iron (DRI). Nitrogen produced in the EAF process remains a significant problem, as it makes for brittle steel.

The DRI process itself is still heavily reliant on thermal coal or natural gas, while trials such as those in Sweden to use hydrogen continue. Some point to the intention of HYBRIT to have a commercial plant running by 2026 as the way forward, but again without even touching on feasibility in the short to near term of replacing plants with such energy intensive replacements, they fail to realise that the HYBRIT process is for production of DRI – the problems in the EAF process, and the necessary use of coking coal remain.

It is absolutely right that we scale up our investment into hydrogen production, storage and usage as a fossil fuel replacement. But we have to be honest with ourselves that it is unlikely to be the panacea for the road to net-zero by 2050. In the same way that wind, solar and marine energy production will feasibly replace our fossil fuel production but not our reliance on nuclear for baseload, hydrogen will replace some of our fossil fuel reliance but not all. These two subjects – electricity availability and hydrogen production – are intrinsically linked by the energy intensive nature of the latter.

We must seize the narrative around net-zero, and be honest about what that means for the people in our constituencies. Counter-intuitively, part of the route to net-zero is to bring back some of our carbon footprint that we’ve offshored by importing from countries that often have dubious environmental protections. Growing our economy, and revitalising our UK manufacturing base will necessarily bring carbon emissions. But we must work harder and smarter here in the UK to reduce our reliance and to reduce the impact.

The recent Measuring up for levelling up report from Onward, which led to the creation of a Levelling-Up Taskforce of which I’m a member, shows the stark reality that average GVA per capita has grown faster in London than anywhere else post-deindustrialisation, while in constituencies like mine in Workington it has slipped back or remained stagnant.

We have a significant opportunity to level up across our constituencies if we can rejuvenate our UK manufacturing base, but we won’t do that by looking at policy-making through a lens that appears more focused on absolute zero, than it does net-zero

Sam Hall: Extinction Rebellion is completely wrong in its approach to climate change

15 Sep

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

As a Conservative environmentalist, I believe passionately in the need for stronger action on climate change. I initially regarded Extinction Rebellion as wrong, but well-meaning. I’ve now come to the conclusion they are not only wrong, but actively harmful to the cause they claim to champion.

During their first action in 2019, I was sympathetic to the urgency with which XR demanded action on climate change, and the importance they attached to the issue. I shared, to some extent, their frustration that it wasn’t given the prominence in political debates that its seriousness merits. And I admired their skill in triggering a national conversation on climate change.

However I now believe Extinction Rebellion have gone badly off course with their use of polarising tactics, and that their approach to fighting climate change is completely wrong.

It has become apparent, for example, that they predominantly direct their protests against people and organisations on the right of British politics. Boris Johnson, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Telegraph are some of their recent targets. But to address climate change effectively over multiple political cycles, we need the support of all political traditions – particularly Conservatives.

We need messages and messengers that will appeal to those groups among whom support for climate policies is lowest, not attacks on the political leaders and institutions they trust. We need to celebrate when once-sceptical Conservatives put forward good climate policies, not criticise their lack of purity.

Another problem is their uninspiring message of despair. Remember XR founder Roger Hallam’s claim that climate change will see billions of deaths, or children at school today will not survive to adulthood?

Of course, unmitigated climate change is incredibly dangerous, but fighting it requires us to be hopeful. We must believe that, if we act, we can succeed in stopping the most severe impacts. We shouldn’t dwell on apocalypse, but rather focus on solutions that create jobs and bring new industries to Britain, while making our towns and cities more prosperous, greener, and healthier places to live.

We also have to bring people with us. Yet by letting an all-powerful assembly, made up of a tiny unelected minority, decide our pathway to net zero, XR is attempting to short-circuit the democratic process.

We do need comprehensive public engagement on climate change, and there is certainly a useful role for assemblies in developing policy. But decisions should be taken by elected politicians that the voters can hold accountable and kick out of office if they choose.

Vital public consent for climate action would quickly be shredded by the pace of change they are demanding. Net zero by 2025 would be eye-wateringly expensive, and cause huge economic dislocation. Instead, we need a transition that is as quick as possible, but which gives people time to adjust, and companies the opportunity to invest for net zero as part of the normal business cycle.

Disagreeing with this 2025 target doesn’t mean you aren’t worried about climate change. Far from it. Environmental ambition should not – although frequently is – measured by the earliness of a target date or the scale of government spending. Truly ambitious policies must also be feasible, costed, and command the support of the public.

Nor is it about being ‘anti-science’. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change agrees that a 2050 net zero target meets our obligations under the Paris Agreement.

While I would be delighted if technological innovation meant we could reach net zero before 2050, it is the case that our 2050 net zero target has a much sounder basis in science than XR’s 2025 deadline.

Nor should we excuse their extreme actions as creating political space for moderate proposals on tackling climate change. For one thing, that is not what most XR campaigners are aiming to achieve. They do not accept compromise.

More broadly, the media and parliamentary debate around Extinction Rebellion is increasingly focused on policing and human rights issues. Note that the statement on XR in Parliament last week was given by the policing minister, not the climate change minister.

Even the climate discussion they provoke is unhelpful. In the media, sceptics of climate science who opportunistically elide XR with mainstream environmentalism, are pitched against left-wing climate activists. XR’s demands and tactics are inimical to a reasoned, evidence-based debate on climate.

But enough negativity. Here is my alternative approach. We need a credible, deliverable and affordable plan to reach net zero by 2050. One that creates millions of well-paid green jobs across the country, that revitalises our towns and cities with the clean industries of the future, and that harnesses the genius of our scientists and the creativity of our entrepreneurs. One that gives consumers freedom to choose between attractive and compelling solutions, and where private-sector competition and government support make them affordable for all.

We need to create the frameworks for businesses to invest in clean technologies, including an appropriate balance of fiscal incentives, regulation, and market signals. And the government needs to make it easier for people to make greener choices in their daily lives, to gain skills to work in clean industries, and to participate in community efforts to improve their local environment.

We have so much more to do to get on track to, and reach, net zero. We need major programmes to upgrade homes, restore nature, and build out renewable energy. We need to deploy new technologies such as green hydrogen, carbon capture storage, and heat pumps, and bring down their costs. In sectors like aviation and shipping, we need to develop and commercialise technologies that are still in their research phase. And we need to do all of this while bringing the public with us and keeping the UK economy competitive.

We have a great prize within our grasp – a clean, reindustrialised Britain, and nature restored to our beautiful landscapes – but we should be clear that achieving it will be hard work.

XR is making that vision even harder to achieve by alienating the public. I fear they are coarsening and toxifying our public discourse on climate change, and fuelling the extremes. For the sake of the climate, I hope they change course.