Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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28 Jun 2014

Interview: Caroline Flint, Shadow Energy Minister

What would you say were the defining characteristics of Labour politics in relation to sustainability and climate change? 

The challenges of protecting our natural environment and dealing with a changing climate are immense. When it comes to government, actions speak louder than words – and Labour has a good record on protecting our natural environment, and opening it up for the public to enjoy.  The Attlee Government legislated for our first national parks, nature reserves and Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI).  The last Labour Government creating two more national parks in the New Forest and South Downs. We established the right to roam, and gave better protection to wildlife.

We doubled the amount of electricity we generated from renewable sources, passed the Climate Change Act – a world first – and established the UK as a world leader in offshore wind and carbon capture and storage. If we’re elected next year we’ve said we will set a target to decarbonise our power supply by 2030, support the expansion of low-carbon energy such as renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage, and increase our ambition on energy efficiency.

Labour’s position, as I understand it, is currently in favour of fracking.  Is fracking really a defensible approach in the context of the urgent need to drive down emissions?

There are important regulatory questions which must be answered before large-scale extraction can begin. Tory ministers have chosen to ignore legitimate environmental concerns rather than address them and provide safeguards for communities. Only by fully addressing legitimate environmental and safety concerns about fracking with robust regulation, comprehensive monitoring and strict enforcement will people have confidence that the exploration and possible extraction of shale gas is a safe and reliable source that can contribute to the UK’s energy mix.

In March 2012 Labour set out six environmental conditions for the shale gas regulatory regime. The Government has conceded on 4 of the 6 points. They have not included the baseline survey of methane being assessed prior to drilling, and they have not specified that the monitoring activity should take place over a 12 month period. Many other concerns remain, particularly regarding the effectiveness of the monitoring process and the capacity of the relevant bodies to undertake that monitoring. 

Caroline Flint MP

If it can be developed safely, shale gas is likely to be used in our energy mix in two important ways. Firstly, in heating our homes. 80% of homes in the UK rely on gas for their heating and this is likely to be the case for many years to come. Secondly, for electricity generation. As a party, we’re committed to decarbonising the power supply by 2030 in order to keep on course to meet the target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.

In practice, that means we will need to bring forward substantial investment in low-carbon electricity generation, including renewables, carbon capture and storage and nuclear. However, within this legally binding framework, there will still be a place for gas – at the very least as back-up generation to manage the intermittency of energy sources like wind and solar, which do not generate all the time and which can see quite dramatic changes in their output in a very short space of time.

For this reason, fracking is unlikely to lead to an increase in the total amount of fossil fuel burnt for electricity for generation; it will simply mean more of the gas we do use is produced in this country, rather than overseas. The independent Committee on Climate Change, which is responsible for advising Parliament on how we meet our carbon emissions reduction targets, has also said that shale gas can be developed within our climate targets. 

Do you see any incompatability between economic growth and tackling climate change on the scale required?  Do you see any evidence from anywhere in the world that has successfully decoupled growth and emissions?

On the one side are those who argue that Government-led action on climate change is a threat to growth – an unnecessary burden on business – a lead weight around the neck of UK plc. That view says that economic growth is not possible if we tackle climate change. The likes of the present Chancellor not only believe that the green agenda is bad for business, bad for jobs and bad for growth, but actively revel in their contempt for environmental protection. According to this view, environmental policies are a luxury that can only ever be afforded when times are good. It is an argument, I believe we should firmly reject.  

On the other side, there is the view that all economic growth threatens to deplete the world of resources; that the need to protect the planet means that advanced societies should break with their addiction to the motor car; end holidays abroad; and focus on quality of life rather than material consumption. The West, they believe should accept a lower standard of living in the interests of the planet. Both views share one central premise – that economic growth and environmental sustainability are inherently irreconcilable. One forsakes the environmental policies; the other forsakes the growth. I reject both arguments.

History shows us that only economic growth spreads wealth and prosperity and with it the means to reduce poverty and civilise societies. There is a path between untrammelled growth at all costs; and a zero growth world. We can grow our economy and benefit the planet; we can provide for our citizens and meet their aspirations without ruining our planet. It is not a zero sum game.

The current government has published a Community Energy Strategy.  How important do you see community renewable energy schemes as being, and what would a Labour government do to support and enable it?

As a new energy industrial revolution unfolds, future technologies, sources of renewable and low carbon energy and their application offer more scope than ever to challenge the existing market, reshape relationships and create new agents of delivery. This is not to underestimate, or be naive, about our energy requirements and the role of large scale energy generation and delivery. Nor is it to ignore nuclear and the important role it can play in meeting Labour’s Climate Change targets, set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, accepted by the Coalition Government.  

However we cannot neglect the potential for individuals and communities to create and save energy. In truth there are plenty of examples both here and abroad which demonstrate the potential of community energy as a low carbon driver. Important as that is, it is equally about empowering people to take more control over their use of energy and at what price.

Do you see climate scepticism as a growing or a declining force within Westminster?

Labour has always warned that climate change threatens national security because of the consequences for destabilisation of entire regions of the world, mass migration of millions of people and conflict over water or food supplies. The flooding earlier this year showed that this is a national security issue in our own country too with people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods under attack from extreme weather. Because of political division in Westminster we are sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change. The science hasn’t changed, and recent events here at home and overseas should serve as a wake-up call for us all. The climate change consensus that once existed has frayed. Labour stands ready to work with good people from all parties to do what is necessary. 

From your perspective, is the challenge of staying below 2 degrees best served by being in or out of Europe?

There is no doubt that Europe does now face a significant reform ‘moment’ that must be seized, and that  Europe has to be made to work better for Britain. But our interests, including on the environment, are undoubtedly better served by staying in the European Union. Lots of the problems we face do not respect national borders – so to reduce our carbon emissions and prevent dangerous climate change, we need to see co-ordinated action between different countries. Being in the EU helps us to do that and it gives us greater clout when it comes to international negotiations with the rest of the world. 

The Conservatives are planning to introduce a policy to ban all onshore wind turbines if it wins the next election.  What would Labour do?  

I don’t believe in setting arbitrary caps for the cheapest and most developed form of renewable electricity – and the next Labour Government will give onshore wind the support it deserves.

If you are elected, and end up representing the UK at COP21 in Paris next December, what can community groups, such as Transition, do to best support you as Environment Minister, and to help you feel empowered to take bold and meaningful action?

Government can lead the effort, but all of us – business, trade unions, councils, civil society, communities, families and individuals – must work together to imagine and build the country we want and the kind of planet we want to live on. Civil society can help lift the ambitions of politicians and Governments. Each one of us has a part to play, and only by uniting will we realise those ambitions.

Caroline Flint is Labour MP for the Don Valley, and Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.