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The UK's Climate Rebels | The Nation

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The UK's Climate Rebels

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In most ways Britain is well ahead of the United States on climate change, though that's not saying much. Out-and-out climate science deniers are almost as rare as creationists. Being green carries a market premium and a certain cachet; knowing where your asparagus comes from is an accepted part of affluent consumer consciousness. Most of the culture talks the talk; the elegantly simple 10:10 Campaign, recently launched by Franny Armstrong, director of The Age of Stupid, and supported by the Guardian newspaper, has persuaded more than 40,000 people and nearly 2,000 businesses (including E.ON--a little greenwash here) as well as the leaders of the three major parties to pledge to reduce their emissions by 10 percent in the year 2010. Britain has a venerable rural conservation movement, supported by the same people who marched against Labour's fox-hunting ban and by Prince Charles, that well-known organic farmer. Jumping onto the green bandwagon was no big leap for David Cameron when he rebranded the Tory Party in 2006, replacing its blue torch logo with a green scribbled tree.

About the Author

Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...

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Since then politicians of all stripes have vied for the green high ground. In 2008 the Climate Change Act made Britain the first country to commit to a legally binding cut in greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent against 1990 levels by 2050. This summer Ed Miliband, Labour's tireless secretary for energy and climate change, published a sweeping and detailed "Low Carbon Transition Plan," which laid out how the first stage of that cut would be achieved and promised 400,000 new sustainable jobs by 2015, firmly tying economic recovery to energy reform.

And yet, on most objective measures and despite recent improvements, Britain remains one of Europe's worst offenders on greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, according to EU statistics, the renewable share of Britain's energy consumption was the lowest percentage of all the EU countries (Malta's figure is not listed). Its total emissions and emissions from energy production were exceeded only by Germany's; those from waste were the highest in the EU. What has kept the government from putting its money where its mouth is--and what does the movement need to do to bring about real change?

The story of the Vestas factory may hold a few clues. Last July, a few days after Miliband launched his transition plan, the Danish company Vestas announced it was closing its wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight--the only such plant in Britain--with the loss of some 600 jobs. There was an instant uproar, with calls for the government to bail out Vestas as it had the banks; the dispute became a major embarrassment for Miliband. A handful of cadres from Workers' Climate Action--an offshoot of Climate Camp formed by members of a Trotskyist group called Workers' Liberty--had been talking to Vestas employees since the closure was first rumored, laying the groundwork for a factory occupation. When the time came, some thirty workers locked themselves in the building, supported from the outside by local residents and assorted climate campaigners, who brought their tents and their energy and tossed in food-stuffed tennis balls to help sustain morale. The occupation lasted nineteen days and got plenty of press attention, but the factory still closed.

The Vestas plant manufactured turbines for the American market (a smaller size than those used here onshore); it made both economic and environmental sense to move production to the United States. Miliband clearly wanted to keep the factory open; when sacked Vestas workers demonstrated against him at the Trade Union Congress, he awkwardly joined the applause, explaining that the firm had in fact refused an offer of government funds. Nor was it willing to convert the plant to make turbines for Britain. The British market is too small and too uncertain, he explained, mainly because of local objections to wind farms and a tortuous planning process.

A new planning authority will make it easier to get permission for renewable energy projects (and nuclear power plants) and give the government control over the energy grid. But Miliband's uncomfortable assertion of his government's powerlessness elides a deeper problem. Labour's faith in markets and its allergic response to any whiff of economic centralism stands in the way of Britain meeting its own renewable energy targets--30 percent by 2020. "The difficulties are partly ideological, with Britain increasingly taking the view that the solutions to these problems are market based," says Tony Juniper, a longtime environmental campaigner and former executive director of Friends of the Earth. "In Denmark, Germany and even Spain there's been a great deal of state intervention; that's why they're way ahead."

For all Labour's early talk about "joined-up thinking," it's obvious that on climate change the government's right hand doesn't know, or doesn't want to know, what its left hand is doing. Jonathon Porritt, former chair of Tony Blair's Sustainable Development Commission, says that key departments are still committed to "the old way of doing things" and to the large energy companies: "Without Ed Miliband coming in and banging heads together and saying this is unacceptable, we would still be back there.... The Treasury remains unpersuaded that you can have a productive economy and go low-carbon." Environmental campaigner and author George Marshall has a more hard-nosed view of the Treasury's reluctance: "The UK is setting itself up as the international carbon-trading capital. Two of the largest oil companies are based in Britain, as well as big mineral companies like Rio Tinto; you have to understand the policy in that context. Trading is what you do when you don't want to touch the supply."

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