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Socialism Today 153 - November 2011

Lib Dems in full environmental retreat

BEFORE THEY came to power, the Lib Dems attached great significance to their supposedly radical programme on the environment. The importance to their activists of the party’s stance on this issue was highlighted by a YouGov poll for Greenpeace in October 2010 that found 77% of party members thought that the government should safeguard or increase clean energy budgets. So have Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem energy secretary, and Vince Cable delivered on the environment?

The key green pledges in their 2010 election manifesto were: a target for 40% of electricity generation from renewables by 2020; investing £400 million to allow shipyards to make wind turbines; investing £140 million to replace old, polluting buses; rejecting a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Some of these got short shrift from chancellor George Osborne within the first few months of the Con-Dem administration. On buses, for example, the comprehensive spending review announced a cut of £300 million in subsidies to bus services, not the increased spending the Lib Dems were demanding for new vehicles. On investment in wind turbines, the amount available was cut in half. More recently, Huhne, Clegg and Cable have supported a pro-private transport agenda, with a cut in vehicle fuel duty and an increase in spending on road schemes to £897 million, at a time when public services for the poor are being decimated.

The target of 40% of electricity generation from renewables by 2020 is an extremely modest figure to aim for, because it does not mention targets to restrict other forms of greenhouse gas pollution, such as from road vehicles and aircraft, or gas and coal burning not connected to electricity generation. Even so, the Lib Dem manifesto target is missing from the department of energy’s programme. All it says is that 30% of electricity generation ‘could’ come from renewables by 2020.

One target that has been adopted is for 15% of all energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2020. However, the consensus opinion by climate scientists now is that this figure needs to be 40% to give any chance that global warming will be restricted to an increase of 2C, above which catastrophic ‘tipping’ effects could be triggered. There must also be great doubt that the 15% target will be achieved since Osborne made clear at the recent Tory party conference that Britain would do no more than rival countries in addressing global warming. No doubt, such a policy would be reciprocated by most other capitalist powers, especially in this time of economic crisis which almost guarantees an environmental race to the bottom.

Incidentally, statements by energy department ministers, who like to boast that they are on course to meet the Kyoto treaty targets for cuts in greenhouse gases by 2012, are largely spurious. This is because the Kyoto targets themselves were essentially cosmetic, and hardly scratched the surface of what is required. In addition, a combination of economic crisis, leading to a fall in greenhouse gas output, and a long-term trend of de-industrialisation, leading to pollution being exported to China as industry has relocated there, have flattered the figures.

Despite the retreats, some Lib Dems are probably still pinning their hopes on the Green Investment Bank announced in the coalition agreement delivering significant environmental dividends. As commented on in this column a year ago (Socialism Today No.144, December/January 2010/11), the prospects for this initiative did not look good and little has changed since then to alter this view. The bank’s initial capitalisation will be £3 billion, slightly higher than initially mooted. But it will not be able to begin significant operations until financial year 2015/16, when it may, if certain conditions are met, be able to borrow a further £15 billion to fund its work. This delay is serious since all science is pointing to the need for urgent action. Also, the funds available must be compared to the vastly greater amounts that are required to meaningfully address global warming. For example, the consultancy company Ernst and Young has calculated that £450 billion is required up to 2025 to build a low carbon infrastructure.

The most radical sounding proposal in the Lib Dem manifesto was to reject a new generation of nuclear power stations. Huhne had said that nuclear power was a failed technology, but his opposition to nuclear was abandoned after only a few hours of initial talks to set up the coalition. At the time, Huhne was quoted as saying that there were a whole series of compromises made that were "obviously unpleasant for each of the parties". This comment may have been made to give the impression to party activists that, behind the scenes, Huhne would fight tooth and nail to salvage as much as possible from his programme, and at least would not give the nuclear lobby an easy ride. However, this possible interpretation was undermined after only a few months by the events surrounding his department’s attempted cover-up of the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

The nuclear lobby was in a panic after Fukushima, and began a PR campaign to downplay its effects within hours of the incident, even though what actually happened and the horrific consequences did not become even partially clear until months afterwards. Emails obtained by the Guardian showed that the PR campaign was coordinated by Huhne’s department, in close collaboration with Cable’s department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Two days after the initial accident, the business department contacted the nuclear lobby body, the Nuclear Industry Association, helpfully pointing out that things were not as bad as they seemed at Fukushima. "Radiation has been controlled, the reactor has been protected", an official from the BIS wrote in the email. It continued: "It is all part of the safety systems to control and manage a situation like this". This was just before two further explosions at the plant and before the reactors began to melt down, beginning the release of huge quantities of radiation. Ten months later, a reactor is still not under control and it is not certain when it will be.

The same official in Cable’s department told the nuclear plant manufacturer, Areva, that "we need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl". Two months later, the disaster was officially classified as level 7, the worst possible and the same as Chernobyl. The text of a subsequent government statement on Fukushima was cleared in advance with nuclear industry representatives, a level of collusion described as "truly shocking" by a former government nuclear regulator.

After the accident, Huhne announced a review of the lessons, the report of which has just been published. Not surprisingly, it recommended only minor changes to procedures, which was enough for Huhne to give the planned new nuclear stations the go ahead. So confident was it of the outcome of the review, the power company EDF did not even bother to wait for the report to be published before starting work on the proposed new Hinkley Point nuclear reactor.

Huhne seems to think that, because Britain is not in an earthquake zone, there is no danger from nuclear. However, the lessons of a whole series of disasters, from Windscale in the UK in the 1950s, through Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl and finally Fukushima, is that disasters have occurred due to a combination of previously unanticipated circumstances, technical failure and human error. There is no reason to think this deadly pattern will not be repeated.

In the aftermath of the revelations about the Lib Dems’ role in covering up the extent of the Fukushima disaster, some leading rank-and-file party members called for Huhne to resign. Andy Myles. the Lib Dems’ former chief executive in Scotland, said it was a terrible betrayal of liberal values. However, by the time of the 2011 conference, the leadership sailed through without significant opposition. The Lib Dem betrayal of their environmental promises is another nail in the party’s coffin.

Pete Dickenson

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