Are we heading for a Second Battle of Kingsnorth?

The Lib-Cons are finally realising that green rhetoric is all well and good, but it doesn’t keep the lights on.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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In May, as Britain’s new power couple – the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – were making their loving union public, doing the rounds of well-wishers and holding hands coyly, prime minister David Cameron made it clear that he wanted his new mix of blue and yellow to be the ‘greenest government ever’. Speaking to staff at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, he declared: ‘There is a fourth minister in this department who cares passionately about this agenda and that is me, the prime minister, right. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.’

In the eyes of green campaigners, however, many of the government’s actual policies have tended to contradict this assertion. The UK Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) has been abolished, ostensibly because its outlook is now so deeply embedded across Whitehall (a justification that the SDC’s chair Jonathon Porritt described as fatuous). Last week, it was revealed that lots of environment-related bits of government, like the Forestry Commission and the Met Office, might be flogged to the private sector or have their funding cut.

But if green campaigners saw that lot as treachery, a story in yesterday’s Guardian must have had them planning an agricultural tool-wielding lynch mob. Before this year’s General Election, and in the coalition agreement afterwards, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats promoted the idea of an ‘environmental performance standard’ (EPS) that would have restricted greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas power stations and encouraged the building of low-carbon alternatives. But government sources have now confirmed that the EPS will not be featuring in legislation in the autumn, but will be put out for consultation instead with the prospect of a White Paper next year.

As Greenpeace’s energy campaigner, Joss Garman, told the Guardian: ‘David Cameron made the introduction of new rules to stop the most polluting power stations one of his flagship green policies, and Nick Clegg helped ensure it was a key part of the coalition agreement. Both Lib Dem and Conservative MPs voted for the introduction of such a measure just a few months ago, and if they U-turn on this and fail to put this measure into their new energy law, how can they claim to be the greenest government ever?’

The government’s justification for not including the EPS in its forthcoming programme of legislation is that it is taking a step back to review the ‘big picture’. If that really is the case, ministers might finally notice something that has been apparent for some time: if the UK goes all-out for green energy, the lights are very likely to start going out over the next decade.

The problem for the government is the coalescing of a number of factors. First, Britain’s fleet of relatively low-carbon nuclear power stations is (mostly) reaching the end of its life. By 2023, all but one of the UK’s reactors – which produce about one fifth of the country’s electricity needs – are due to close. An obvious solution would be to build some more, but years of prevarication by successive governments mean that any new nuclear is unlikely to come on stream in time. In fact, while the energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, talks about giving the green light to nuclear, it’s far from clear that his heart is in it.

Second, the demand for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions means that fossil-fuel power stations – particularly coal and, to a lesser extent, gas – are now supposed to be out of favour. These are the cheapest, easiest to build and most reliable forms of power generation we have, but are now seen as too ‘dirty’. While gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal, there are worries about relying too much on gas because of concerns about security of supply, particularly from Russia. Never mind that the rapid expansion of coal-fired power stations in the developing world, especially China, already dwarfs any possible benefit from the UK shunning such plants.

Third, the technologies that are supposed to be filling the energy gap – especially windpower – are expensive and unreliable. Windfarms also attract considerable local opposition from those who believe plonking an army of white turbines on to the UK’s hills rather spoils the view. Having pandered to localism against centralised targets, the new coalition is in an even worse position to push through a massive onshore wind programme. And given the costs involved in building thousands of windmills, the companies involved want guarantees in terms of subsidies and minimum prices for the electricity they generate, which doesn’t come cheap at a time when government money is in short supply. Oh, and you need plenty of backup power on tap – like those nasty coal-fired power stations – to jump in and fill the shortfall when the wind doesn’t blow.

The coalition is thus faced with a dilemma: to build economical, reliable but relatively polluting power stations now or wait for the lights to go out. Wind, tidal and other forms of renewable energy may well, in time, be important means of supplying power in the UK, but they’re not there yet by any means. Actively backing a new generation of cleaner coal, gas and nuclear power stations, while supporting the technological research required to make renewables viable in the longer term, would be a rational compromise. But that means the uncomfortable process of rowing back on earlier, irrational energy policies and incurring the wrath of green activists.

The symbol of this whole debate has been the proposed new Kingsnorth power station in Kent. The current power station on the site is due to close by 2016 under European Union regulations and the owner, German energy company E.ON, has proposed replacing it with two modern, coal-fired generating units that would produce 20 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. However, the plan became a cause célèbre for green groups – who ended up struggling with police over a ‘climate camp’ at Kingsnorth in 2008 – and, in turn, for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In the end, sick of the controversy and ministerial stalling, E.ON has shelved the plan until 2016 at the earliest.

But other companies have put forward plans for such power stations elsewhere in the country, which would now appear to have a greater prospect of being approved. The government’s delaying of the new emissions standards suggests that in the battle between unrealistic emissions targets, as agreed by all the major UK political parties and enshrined in the Climate Change Act 2008, and the need to sustain and develop a modern economy with decent living standards – which requires ever-greater quantities of affordable energy – pragmatism is the order of the day.

Being green is all fine and dandy when it means turning off unused lights or separating your tin cans from milk cartons. It is a different matter when it means steep rises in energy prices and the prospect of power shortages. If circumstances are bringing a new realism to the UK’s energy policy, that can only be a good thing. But despite what Porritt and others believe, the baleful influence of ‘sustainability’ is still strong in the corridors of power. We can still expect more pointless, expensive and frustrating delays in decision-making for years to come.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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