Unclean, no Growth, no Plan

Secretary of State, Greg Clark MP, launched the government’s ‘Clean Growth Plan’ claiming that

“...Britain continues to lead the world in efforts to tackle climate change.”

He ought to have added “…and in self-delusion.” If for nothing else, you have to hand it to the government for breathtaking audacity; dressing up abject failure as if it were runaway success.

One year late, and forced to do so only because there is legally obliged to, the government provided a statement to Parliament on how it plans to meet its 5th and 6th carbon budgets. Skip past the flannel. The evidence is clear: the government’s wish-list will miss both targets (by at least 6% and 10% respectively).

The real picture is even worse. Productivity rates are falling, the wealth divide widens and real income levels continue to fall. Britain’s ‘growth’ has mainly been in consumption; but you can’t shop your way out of an economic crisis. And you can’t use cheap and dirty to drive you through a climate one.

How long will it take to realise this was, in fact, the Government’s ‘Unclean, no Growth, no Plan’ Statement.

The politics of deception

You didn’t have to be Mystic Meg to know the government’s Clean Power Plan would be a scam.

In the days leading up to its launch various groups had been invited in to BEIS; knees fondled in the hope of eliciting sympathetic endorsement. There was one conspicuous absence amongst the invitees. None of the groups opposed to Fracking received the Ministerial call.

It was the most obvious indication that the government intention was to make ‘unclean’ sound clean and ‘vacuous’ sound meaningful.

A green light for Fracking wasn’t the only act of sophistry on offer. The draft plan has been sitting on Ministers desks all summer. Their dilemma was that it had to avoid offending major donors to the Party. Incumbent market interests were not to be threatened. Platitudes were what was needed – lots of them – but not market disruption or climate duties. The emphasis was to be on long term ‘vision’, avoiding short-term, transformational obligations.

There would there be no mention either of ending Britain’s pernicious record of throwing public subsidies at long term energy market failure. The Times and Telegraph may deride the insane subsidies thrown at Hinkley’s nuclear behemoth, but the Plan was not to mention it.

The Green Deal may have ignominiously collapsed, but it was not to be criticised. Zero-carbon homes may have been dumped, but this would not be mentioned. The Green Investment Bank might have been sold off, but let’s skip that one. Some 40 million people in Britain may have to live with illegal levels of air pollution, but there would be no suggestion of a 1960’s-style Clean Air Act, forcing through an armistice for urban lungs.

Wherever you looked, ‘the polluter pays’ principle was parked elsewhere.

The trouble with the Tories is that they hide behind incentives but refuse to change the markets. ‘Clean’ is seen as market distorting, ‘dirty’ the norm. The tragedy is that too late they will realise that the only markets we will be able to live in will have to have to be clean, be it water, food, transport, energy or housing.

Britain’s problem is that we don’t do joined-up and have forgotten how to create markets that socialise the benefits of clean. This was what struck me last week as I looked at Denmark’s approach.

Denmark’s ‘State of Green’

Denmark may be a near neighbour but I may as well have been in a different galaxy.

By 2020, Denmark will get 50% of its electricity from wind. By 2030, 50% of all energy will come from renewable energy sources. And by 2050, the country will have become a ‘100% low emissions economy’; none of these are targets in the Conservative’s Clean Growth Plan.

But the chasm is wider still. After the 1973 oil crisis Denmark determined it would never be held to ransom again. It would break its dependency on oil and gas. In the process it has created a completely different approach to heat and power networks.

It’s national grid – Energienet – is publicly owned. Within it there are some 70 local ‘distribution networks, combining both electricity and gas. The main ‘city’ grids are municipally owned and 85% of the heat networks are owned by co-ops.

Some 64% of Danish housing is covered by some form of district heating. And by law, you are not allowed to sell heat for a profit.

The Danes took the view that if there was to be a natural monopoly for heat and power, heat should be sold at production costs only. Underpinning this has been the availability of long-term loans (20-30 years), from municipal banks, at 1-2% interest, to build their socialised energy networks. We visited communities where the price of heating had not risen in 15 years … eat your heart out ‘price freeze’!

Greener still

It doesn’t end there. Copenhagen, a city-region of 1.8 million people, aims to be the world’s first C-neutral capital by 2025. At the moment, 85% of its municipal vehicles are EVs. The water in its harbour has been cleaned up. New bike-only bridges across its rivers are in the pipeline and 41% of all travel to work/study is already by bike.

By 2020 only low-energy housing will be built. Even now, you cannot get planning permission for a building that requires fossil fuel heating.

By 2025, the City has committed to deliver a 20% reduction in total heat consumption, a 20% cut in electricity use by commerce and services, and a 10% reduction in domestic electricity consumption.

All this is underpinned by a universal carbon tax and a focus on the skills to deliver job security, prosperity, and the shift into clean.

Like anywhere, Denmark has its Achilles Heels. It’s focus on combined heat and power systems may have helped deliver the highest ‘grid stability’ in Europe (99.9%) and an easy ‘generation’ shift from heat to power, but the dependency on biofuels is neither a long-term nor universal answer.

No surprise then that Copenhagen is piloting work on free heat from sewage waste, and has 100 projects on reducing urban energy consumption in the pipeline. Nor that DONG (which, having sold off its Oil and Natural Gas interests, changed its name to Örsted while we were there) is trialing a waste recycling project using enzymes. The only big surprise was that the project is in Cheshire: no doubt to be claimed by the Tories as part of their Clean Growth Plan.

Lessons for tomorrow

If Britain wants a genuine ‘Clean Growth Plan’ – and oh! how we need one – then the key is not to be found in the detail of Denmark’s ‘State of Green’, but in its framework. The Danes built their approach around 4 pillars – zoning, combined ‘heat and power’ networks, not-for-profit (socialised) infrastructures and low cost loans (via municipal banks).

The Wild West, neo-Lib climate-denying part of today’s Conservative Party would choke on repeating the last sentence, let alone endorsing it. Moreover, they would happily choke any of their Conservative colleagues who might do. The momentum for change must come from elsewhere. Some of it can come from within the ranks of Labour MPs but far more must come from those outside.

As ever, the greatest change comes when society itself is in the driving seat. Britain has all the resources it needs to transform its economy along clean sustainable lines. But it will involve the biggest transformation in peacetime history. Look at the climate roller-coaster we are already experiencing and sense the urgency.

The choice – beyond the platitudes of the Clean Growth Plan – is no longer a political one. It is existential.

Alan Simpson

October 2017

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