Man made climate change has appeared to me for three decades to be sufficiently proven, and it has that cardinal virtue of a scientific hypothesis, you can see the things which it predicts will happen, come to pass before your eyes, like being uncomfortably hot in your Edinburgh flat on Easter Monday.
Direct action of the illegal kind is a very important weapon in the arsenal of protest. It represents a challenge to the state’s monopoly of force. While it may appear non-violent, in fact by imposing your body into a space and blocking it off, that is an assertion of physical force. What the Extinction Rebellion protests showed this week was the reticence of the Metropolitan Police in dealing with nice, middle class and largely white protestors. That reticence is to be welcomed; the fact that it is not extended to other groups is what is to be deplored. The alternative is to argue for everyone to get beaten up by Plod equally, which is not a sensible line to take.
I broadly support the Extinction Rebellion protest. In terms of gatecrashing climate change on to the political agenda, they have had a good and entirely necessary effect. Their use of what was in effect force, certainly did some harm in restricting the movement of people around London, and in some cases will have impacted the ability of struggling people to earn their living. It also disrupted public transport systems which are a good thing. But these are minor items if you accept that climate change is whirling its way to becoming an existential threat – and that is a premise which I do accept. The disruption is outweighed by the intent to do a much greater good, in terms of the justification of the people doing the protesting. Whether it succeeds in prompting real action by government and achieving a balance of good, is a different question. I fear we have to get rid of the Tories first.
I accept that climate change is a worldwide phenomenon and action in individual states of limited utility. But individual states can inspire by example, not least by showing that a switch to a greener economy can lead to a major stimulation of economic growth. I do not pretend to expertise in green economics. What follows are rather some homely policy nostrums which I believe should form a part of a coherent approach to green policy.
1) Home Insulation
The Tory Government has effectively abandoned and cancelled home insulation schemes; in effect nothing whatsoever is happening. Yet the government’s own plan to reach committed emissions targets by 2050 explicitly depends on one third of all savings being achieved by insulation in Britain’s existing stock of over 20 million very poorly insulated homes.
There is the clearest case here for government action. The aim should be to upgrade 4 million homes a year. Full funding should be provided to local authorities and housing associations for their stock. Householders should face a legal obligation to bring home insulation up to high defined standards – with generous means-tested grants available from central government funds, which should meet 100% of the cost for all those in straitened circumstances, and a decreasing percentage thereafter based on income and wealth. Private landlords should be forced to comply and self-fund up to the value of four months’ rent, with grants available for higher costs. Failure to comply should lead to the landlords’ property being confiscated by the local council, with tenancies protected.
Those are the broad outlines of a policy which would provide massive employment and contribute to a major Keynesian boost for an economy crippled by years of austerity, as well as make a major difference to emissions.
2) Ocean Energy
Wind energy has made massive strides, and to a lesser extent solar and hydro. But disappointingly little has been done to harness the restless energy of the seas. Government support for research programmes into utilising wave and current energy is pitifully small, given the potentially vast and reliable energy resource available, to the UK in particular.
On tidal energy, those objecting to the Severn or Wash barrage schemes on the grounds of effect on wildlife habitat are failing spectacularly to see the wood for the trees. Of course biodiversity is massively important, but we are fighting a battle in which some resources will need to be sacrificed. The Severn, Wash and Swansea Bay schemes do not require substantial technological innovation – they are basically just low head hydro – and should be pushed ahead as urgent projects. Simultaneously major research funding should be given to innovation. I suspect the harnessing of currents rather than waves would be the first to fruition.
3) Aviation Fuel Tax
Cheap flights are the opiate of the people. I cannot buy in to the argument that aviation fuel tax is only viable if everybody does it. Planes landing can very easily be taxed on any fuel they have in their fuel tanks brought in from third countries. If hub passengers transiting are reduced in favour of fuel tax free destinations, I cannot see that as a bad thing. An aviation hub is a particularly undesirable thing to become, from any sensible environmental view.
Flying is a major contributor to pollution and there is far too much of it. The tax free fuel status that makes flights cheaper than trains is ludicrous. Aviation fuel should be taxed at the same levels per calorific value as road fuels.
4) Expand Rail Networks
Nationalisation and re-integration is of course the sensible prelude to any development of rail transport. The UK is chronically behind most of the developed, and even much of the developing, world in terms of high speed rail lines. This needs to be rectified as does the chronic over-concentration of transport resource on South East England. HS2 should run on to Aberdeen and Inverness, not just be confined to the southern third of the UK.
On a wider note, with demand for rail transport buoyant, re-establishment of many Beeching axed lines should be undertaken with a view to a simple containerised nationwide freight distribution system as well as passenger transport. Rail is far more energy efficient than road. The preponderance of road transport is simply the result of perverse incentive from government policy.
Light rail and tram systems should be expanded in cities. Here in Edinburgh, the poor planning and execution of the start of a tram system should not put us off. Trams should be a local service, not fast and stopping frequently, but rather akin to buses, as in Manchester. They should not be confused as in Edinburgh with an express airport service, with very few and inaccessible stops.
5) Encourage Micro-Generation: Abolish Nuclear
The UK had an immensely successful programme of encouraging domestic solar generation through feed in tariffs, so the Tories cut it, as they cut the less successful insulation grants. Generous feed-in tariffs for domestic generation should be rebooted, while technologies such as heat pumps and exchangers should be zero rated for VAT (as should bicycles).
By contrast, the massively expensive nuclear power projects should be scrapped immediately. I lived almost all my adult life under the impression nuclear energy involved some fiendishly clever technology, until I realised it generates from bog standard steam turbines, and the nuclear part is simply a ludicrously complicated, incredibly expensive and devastatingly dangerous way to – boil water.
The real attraction to governments of nuclear power is the precise reason governments dislike micro-generation – nuclear power promotes a massively centralised security state, and links in well to weaponisation. It is the most expensive electricity of all, and should be immediately closed down.
The above represent my own thoughts on possible short term policy responses to climate change. I acknowledge quite freely that it is not my area of expertise and is perhaps insufficiently radical, and certainly insufficiently broad and detailed. It has however focused my mind on the great economic stimulus that can be gained from wholesale pursuit of the necessary technologies at the government level.
I have deliberately concentrated on unilateral measures rather than international negotiation, because I am sceptical there is sufficient will for progress on the latter or that governments around the world intend to stick to commitments. I have viewed it from a UK not a Scottish perspective because action is required immediately, and Scotland starts from a much better place anyway.
That I am thinking on this at all is in a way evidence that Extinction Rebellion achieved their aim from their immediate action, though it is those in power they seek to influence, not random bloggers. I am very sceptical of their declared desire to “negotiate with government”. If David Cameron were still in power, he would undoubtedly “hug a swampie” and make all kinds of green noises, then continue shutting down environmental programmes. Those around Theresa May are quite clever enough to recommend such an approach, as a potential Tory rescuing image as the party otherwise crashes to electoral disaster.
I would recommend Extinction Rebellion to keep blocking the roads and stay clear of the politicians. If they could refine their tactics to concentrate more on direct action against the big polluters and their financial backers, and move away from shocking the public through inconvenience, that might be tactically good for a while. But on the whole, I applaud. Vigorously.