Climate Action: Too Important for the Politicians

Merrick, 5th February 2009ce

On 23rd January I went to a climate question time at Leeds Civic Hall organised by Oxfam as part of their role in the Stop Climate Chaos coalition. The panel was pretty high level;

Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Robert Goodwill, Shadow Roads Minister for Transport
Richard Brett, Liberal Democrat and Co-Leader of Leeds City Council
Martin Kirk, Oxfam’s Head of UK Campaigns

It’s usual in these things for there to be a load of party point scoring – including generous helpings of logical and factual errors – but the balance is somewhat redressed by points from the audience.

This time, though, there was no audience input allowed save the asking of questions, and even they had to be emailed in advance. You can imagine the level of bunkum this allowed those on the panel to get away with.

Benn’s performance was extraordinary; not just selective with the facts but plain wrong and – the thing that gives away when an intelligent person is defending their role rather than seeking truth – blatant contradictions from one answer to the next and even within answers.


The first question was about the proposed expansion of Leeds-Bradford airport, and how doubling aviation while trying to cut carbon emissions is like fucking for virginity. Benn began by defending a project that he so vehemently opposed that he was said1 to be on the verge of resigning over, Heathrow’s third runway.

He said that there are stringent guidelines on noise and pollutants that the airport must meet before it is allowed to have any extra flights. As if the new runway might be built but not used for this reason. As if the government and the British Airports Authority didn’t ditch the projections for noise and pollution and selectively pick different data to cook the figures2. As if, as Simon Jenkins has pointed out3, time and time again promises about restricting Heathrow have been broken, and ‘what will Brown do if these conditions are not met? Will he come from retirement, break up the tarmac with a drill and rebuild Harmondsworth?’.

Also, giving a lengthy speech about noise impacts is simply playing for time in the discussion. As an answer to a climate change question it is an irrelevance.

Benn said that aviation is only 7% of the UK’s emissions, which he must know is not really true. In order to split responsibility with the destination country, that figure is based on half the number of flights entering or leaving the UK. The actual responsibility is different - 70% of passengers travelling are UK citizens. It also includes no ‘uplift factor’, the amount by which it’s worse because planes emit at altitude. Bring these in and it’s closer to 12% of the UK’s climate impact4.

He said that aviation is now part of the UK’s carbon targets, and so it will not expand our total emissions. If we expand aviation we will reduce emissions elsewhere. ‘Society can choose to fly and make cuts in other areas,’ he explained.

Who is the ‘society’ in that sentence? Just as biofuels displace food because those who drive are richer than the starving, so those who fly are richer than those who don’t. The fact that the poor need food or heating more than the rich need cars and planes is an irrelevance.

It is not a democratic society in Benn’s vision, it is the rule of money, as if tenners were voting slips and the more you have the louder your voice is heard.

The Conservative and LibDems both said that new high speed rail links were the low-carbon solution to new runways. It would be simple to run one from London to Edinburgh through Leeds, they said.

There are two problems with high-speed trains. The cost and the carbon emissions.

The proposed Edinburgh-Glasgow high-speed link would cost £4bn, or £60m per mile5. At those rates, a London-Edinburgh link would cost nearly £24bn6. The third runway is slated to cost less than half that7, and of course it links many more places with London than a train line would. Just imagine the cost of a comprehensive high-speed rail network between the major cities of the world.

The Commission for Integrated Transport say that the cheapest high-speed rail link on earth was the Spanish Madrid-Lerida line, at 9m Euros/km8 (about £13m/mile). They report that high-speed trains elsewhere can cost up to five times as much, and that the land costs and topography in the UK means - as those who’ve investigated the Edinburgh-Glasgow line tell us - we wouldn’t be at the cheap end of the scale. Still, even with that best-case Spanish rate, London-Edinburgh would still cost over £5bn.

The fastest intercity train in service on earth is the Beijing–Tianjin line in China that reaches 350 km/h (217 mph). At those speeds, it would take over 23 hours to get from Heathrow to Beijing9. Transferring to boats for countries separated by ocean would slow things down considerably. Just in terms of practicality, high-speed rail is a very good method for travelling several hundred miles, but it is not an all-purpose alternative to aviation.

But even at short distances where it competes with flying time-wise (what you lose on train speed you gain on shorter check-in times), the problem is that, in the same way that fuel efficiency in cars gets worse over 50 mph or thereabouts, once a train gets above around 125 mph its energy consumption goes up sharply. Using electricity from the grid, a London-Edinburgh train going at 350km/h (217 mph) would consume the equivalent of 22 litres of fuel per seat. An Airbus 321 consumes 20 litres10.

Granted, there’s the ‘lift factor’ of aircraft emissions being worse because of emitting at altitude, but this still clearly doesn’t deliver the low-carbon transport we need.

This brings us to the central difference in approach to climate solution technologies. There are the techno-enthusiasts who say there’s a magic bullet that’ll fix everything and we can go ahead as we are until it’s on the table. This, as Jim Bliss pointed out11, is like scattering anthrax everywhere you go because an antidote might be developed by the time people start to get ill.

The only solution that matches what science and justice ask of us is to minimise the harmful activities until the breakthrough technologies become available. In terms of planes vs high-speed rail, that means we have just got to slow down.


A question came from someone who helps companies move to a more climate-conscious way of working. He mentioned the government’s Carbon Trust but said that only really works with large businesses. What help should the government give to small and medium size businesses?

In plain English, Benn’s answer was, ‘none - you’re on your own, mate’. He took a lot longer to say it than that, naturally. He said that high-emitting industries use great quantities of energy and so it’s in their interests to reduce emissions, and that it’s the low-carbon businesses that will be successful. This from the man who, two minutes earlier, had spoken in favour of the government assisting aviation expansion.

It ignores what any fool knows - some things are more responsible but cost more. What about, as had just been mentioned, getting trains instead of flying? What about getting a green electricity supply12?

‘It will be those who invest who succeed,’ said Benn. Even with those things that would eventually cover their costs, how are small businesses to find the money up-front to do the investing?

For the Conservatives, Robert Goodwill said he was ‘hard pushed to disagree with anything Hilary said’. He talked of visiting the McCain frozen food factory in Scarborough which had an energy audit that’s reduced its energy bills. Easy to do when you’re a large multinational. As a response it chimed perfectly with the subtext of Benn’s answer. You’re on your own. Sink or swim. Government cash is just for the big boys.

The rich irony of praising a frozen food factory in Scarborough never came up. Positioned on the north-east coast, it requires massive road journeys for everything it produces. That stuff is frozen food, quite probably the most carbon-intensive stuff in the supermarket.

Imagine if you left your fridge and freezer doors open all the time, and then heated your kitchen enough not to be affected. Then turned the freezer up not to be affected by the extra heat. Now imagine it on the scale of the vast ranks of them we see in supermarkets. Each one of those units costs £15,000 in electricity a year, with refrigeration taking around two-thirds of the supermarket's energy costs13. Just so we can have frozen chips instead of slicing potatoes ourselves.


As the decision’s not yet taken about the go-ahead for a new generation of coal power stations, Benn didn’t have to defend it. He did, however, sing the praises of ‘clean coal’. He talked of the need for us to press ahead with carbon capture and storage as we’ll have to export this technology to China.

It’s a hackneyed and racist argument, that we westerners are the masters of invention and they won’t do it without us, and that only we have the foresight to desire low-carbon technology. China is the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines14. They are developing carbon capture technology faster than anyone and are likely to be the first country to have a full-scale coal power station fitted with it15.

Even if this weren’t the case, it does not in any way justify giving the go-ahead to coal power stations in the UK to be ‘capture ready’, ie build it and – if and when the technology gets invented – they’ll have space to fit it (but no obligation to).

The one time Oxfam’s Martin Kirk showed any mettle was on this point. He said that our countries have got rich off the back of fossil fuels. We have a historical responsibility and the ability to pay. This isn’t about charity, he explained, it’s about justice, and it’s dishonest of Benn to blame China and India.

He said that Kingsnorth’s ‘capture ready’ plan literally means having an field adjacent to the plant. He likened it to building a garage in the hope that someone will give you enough money to put a Ferrari in it. It’s another example of Jim Bliss’ 'clean anthrax'.

The simple test is this. The government says carbon capture can be up and running by 2020, cutting emissions by 90%16. So why not do what the Royal Society suggest17 and give the go-ahead with the condition that the license is withdrawn in 2020 if the 90% cut isn’t achieved?

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks is clear. ‘If we did that at the moment, when we do not know 100% that CCS [carbon capture and storage] is going to work, the engineering has not yet been tested and no one is fully aware of what the costs might be, then that would put an end to coal-fired power stations’18.

So the government and the industry don’t think it’ll happen any time soon, if at all. They know this is the only way they’ll be able to build full-emission stations. The promise of carbon capture is a decoy to allow it.

Seeing this, there was a proposed amendment to the Climate Change Act. It would have given the Secretary of State power to set a maximum level of CO2 per unit of electricity generated by a new power station. It was supported by the Conservatives and LibDems, but sunk by Labour. Hilary Benn was one of those who voted against it and, effectively, voted for uncaptured coal power stations.

As with other supposedly imminent breakthroughs, the possibility of carbon capture isn’t an argument for indefinitely carrying on as we are. We should be shutting those industries down until the breakthrough happens.


Benn said ‘very few countries will report in 2010 that they’ve met our Kyoto commitments. Britain is one of them’. (This is helped by the fact that Kyoto doesn't count emissions from shipping and international aviation, which make up around a sixth of the UK's climate impact). He returned to his theme of blaming of other countries for our emissions by saying ‘even if we stop developed countries emissions tomorrow we still face the threat of rising emissions from the developing world’.

That’s not two points, it’s one. We have shut down our manufacturing industry and now import it all. A British company moving production to China then importing goods for British consumption and profit is hardly China’s responsibility.

Indeed, a full third of China’s emissions are from the manufacture of goods for export19 (and still their emissions per capita are less than half of ours20). I can’t eat at a restaurant and then deride them because they have dirty dishes whereas the unused ones in my kitchen are clean.

The other factor in Britain’s lower emissions is the ‘dash for gas’, the spate of gas-fired power stations that replaced coal. Like the outsourcing of our manufacturing, this is not part of a low-carbon strategy. These are the by-products of old Conservative policies. Since Labour came to power we’ve had the public understanding of the need to cut carbon emissions and a government that’s promised cuts yet delivered a rise21.

Benn said that carbon trading – where you pay someone not to emit in order to be allowed to emit more – was ‘a very important means of meeting our emissions targets’22. Which is like people who fly six times a year saying it’s OK because they’ve paid for carbon offsets23.

The fact that the emitter industries are enthusiastic about carbon trading should set off your warning bells. Industry lobbies to have a high amount of emissions allowances, meaning the price of carbon is so low that it’s simply cheaper to buy permits than make cuts. Introducing a more complex system is not going to take effect fast enough, nor be far-reaching enough, let alone be fairly rationed out in accordance with what’s essential.

Lots of complicated financial instruments as an effective means of clear dealing without scams and sleight of hand? Have we learned nothing from the credit crunch?

The simple fact that undoes the whole idea is that the science demands that the low-carbon projects happen over there AND we make cuts over here. It needs to be both/and, not either/or.


Another display of staggering gall from Benn came on the issue of nuclear power. Having demonstrated and justified actions that are timid and universally acknowledged as ineffective and inadequate, he said that the government was going ahead with nuclear power because ‘we’re asked to be radical and show leadership’. But not so radical or leaderly as to help small businesses or move electricity generation from fossils and nuclear to pioneering renewables. Or, heaven forfend, to managing and reducing demand for energy rather than trying to keep pace with it.

Regarding the unresolved issue of nuclear waste he said ‘we’ve managed it so far and we’ll continue to manage it,’ as if the two time periods were comparable. The beginning of nuclear power was around fifty years ago, well within living memory. It needs ‘managing’ for many centuries, some of it for tens of millennia. No culture or language has survived anything like that long.

Robert Goodwill agreed, saying, ‘Hilary is absolutely right,’ and ‘it would be irresponsible not to’ build new nukes.

He affirmed the negligibility of waste, saying that a nuclear power station he visited surprised him - the roomful of waste he saw wasn’t the result of a week or month but was actually a couple of decades worth. It isn’t much by volume so, by implication, it isn’t much of a problem. I hereby invite Mr Goodwill to eat half a teaspoonful.

In fact, he made a Freudian slip and referred to nuclear waste depositories as ‘suppositories’. So I’ll amend the invitation to suggest he store it all up his arse. As he’s clearly a political and scientific dinosaur with fossilised ideology, there’s a case to be made that it would count as storage in a geological formation.

But nuclear waste, like the aviation noise, isn’t the real issue with regard to climate change.

The fact that nuclear power stations take a long time to come on-stream is one of their main failings as a climate solution. Benn said that ‘just because you can’t solve a problem immediately doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set it in motion’. But, according to the Sustainable Development Commission, even if we replace all the nuclear power stations due to close, then double the capacity, even by the time they’re all on stream around 2034, we’d only make an 8% cut in our carbon emissions24. It wouldn’t ‘solve the problem’ even in 30 years. In the mean time, the money invested in nuclear is money not invested in renewables.

The time factor is the key issue on climate change. As Benn surely knows, there are ‘tipping points’. As the earth warms so it will hit feedback cycles. Arctic ice melts, making a vast area of whiteness go dark. This absorbs more heat. As the uncovered matter on that ocean floor warms it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This causes more warming, and so on.

There are many such mechanisms. Essentially, once we’re past a certain point, the biosphere takes over as the major emitter and there’s nothing we can do to stop the cycle. We will just be spectators and victims.

Where these points come is not precisely given, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that it could easily be as low as a rise of two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. In order to avoid that, global emissions need to peak by 2015 at the latest25. So a technology that can’t be onstream until 2020 at the earliest is no real use. When there are other technologies that do work, that are quicker to deploy and a hell of a lot safer, it is irresponsible to choose nuclear26.

Goodwill talked of the need for a ‘baseload’, a technology that guarantees a minimum of electricity and can make up for any shortfalls in renewables. He said that Denmark’s carbon footprint is higher than you’d imagine for a nation with so many wind turbines, because when the wind doesn’t blow they turn to fossils.

He’s right, but that’s not an argument for nuclear. Firstly, is he really saying there’ll be many days when the wind isn’t blowing on our turbines, the sun isn’t up on our solar panels, the tide is neither ebbing nor flowing and the waves aren’t rising or falling? If we put the kind of gargantuan sums earmarked for nuclear power into such renewable energy we’d get a lot more out a lot quicker.

Benn reiterated the ‘baseload’ thing and was heckled for his trouble. It was, as the heckler pointed out, a fundamental misrepresentation of the technology. Unlike gas and coal power stations, nuclear is not, in the words of the old electric heating adverts, easily switch off and on-able27. It takes days to get going and days to shut down. It cannot respond in fluctuations from renewables.

It is also very expensive to start with. Imagine how much more it would cost per unit if it were running far below capacity for much of the time. Because the builders will want to recoup their investment and the technology doesn’t permit any rapid shutdown, it will be used at full tilt with the renewables making up the difference and any spare they generate going to waste.

It was here that Richard Brett gave us the most refreshing moment of the evening. After such extensive waffle from Labour and Conservative the chairperson reiterated the point - is nuclear power part of the solution to climate change? Brett replied, ‘no,’ as a sentence in its own right. Then he started the next one with, ‘when I was studying physics at Oxford, we were told that nuclear power was safe’. He explained that our ideas of safe have altered and we now know that much lower levels and other forms of radiation are dangerous.

Brett also took issue with Hilary Benn saying nuclear power only emits 7g of carbon per kilowatt-hour, compared to 360g from gas and 910g from coal28. Even ignoring the fact that, as with aviation, Benn had picked the extreme low-end figure (the government actually say it’s 7g-22g29, other studies say up to 134g30), he chooses to presume that a new nuclear power station would displace a new gas or coal one rather than new renewables.

Brett said that if we factored in the emissions from the thousands of years of monitoring and maintenance the figures would look a lot different. The key thing is – someone actually said it! – to reduce the baseline demand.

Robert Goodwill huffed at this. Nuclear energy is essential if we are to ‘reduce carbon emissions and maintain our energy-greedy standard of living’.


Robert Goodwill gave it us clearly there, the whole thing in a sentence. Do we make our demands match what is sustainable? Or do we throw anything we can at propping up our energy-greedy way of life, pushing the real costs on to those elsewhere in the world and those yet to come?

If we want it in an even more concise form, it comes down to that one word, ‘greedy’. Greed is not merely about taking a lot, or more than is essential. It is about taking far more than you can properly use, more than is good for you, even if you know it comes at the expense of those who don’t have necessities, all because your bottomless desire is more important than anyone else’s needs.

Remember, that came from a Shadow Minister. In all this rebranded tree-logo stuff, never forget that David Cameron’s background is in PR. Never forget who the Conservatives really are.

If you had no idea who the people on the panel were you could still clearly gauge their proximity to power by the amount of bollocks talked. The LibDem was better than most because of his lesser power. In previous panel discussions like this where the most powerful person was the LibDem, they gave us a performance uncannily similar to Hilary Benn’s31.

You’d have known who was the NGO person from the supine way they cosied up to power, beginning innumerable answers with words to the effect of, ‘whilst I applaud the tiny little crumb the government have thrown from the table to keep me and my colleagues hoping they’ll do more and so not giving them the outright criticism they deserve, nonetheless I think they could perhaps do better’.

This was the NGO facet of the common attitude on the panel, that although climate change demands urgent radical social change we must nonetheless keep everything smooth and be nice to those who can make the essential changes but choose not to. We should be content with inadequate measures, as if we should praise a driver who takes our bus over a cliff at 50 mph for having slowed down from 60 mph.

The politicians have no excuse. There is the famous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a huge United Nations organisation collating information from thousands of scientists around the world. They produce a vast and scientifically rigorous report. There is then a concise 22 page version called Summary For Policymakers32. There is, then, no justification for any of these policymakers to be ignorant of the facts or to delay the actions those facts demand.

These people know the science as well as any of us. They know what they’re saying is flawed. They are intelligent and have been debating for years. They are not primarily concerned with finding the truth or being responsible, their main aim is to defend their established position irrespective of what the science or the welfare of the electorate require.

The government resisted counting aviation emissions as part of the UK’s total in the Climate Change Act. Why would they have done that? Did they think that if they didn’t mention those emissions in law then the climate wouldn’t notice them?

They knew the emissions were real, but there was serious pressure from the aviation industry. Their position only changed because the pressure from the other side became greater and forced their hand. Politicians don’t give us the change we need, they acquiesce to it.

A dedicated discussion like this on the most serious issue humanity faces – arguably has ever faced – is treated like a cosy afternoon of sixth-form debating-club tricks. They talk for a long time, going into detail on some incontrovertible point so that you feel you’ve been told a lot of well informed stuff and can’t disagree with them and that this, somehow, reflects on them as agreeable and well-informed people. In doing so they avoid addressing the questions asked or the real issues. It’s so blatantly crooked and insulting to anyone who thinks intelligently or expects integrity.

Add to this the clear fudging and decoys from Goodwill and Benn and you have the clearest demonstration of why we cannot trust politicians to make the changes we need. It is too important for the debate to be treated as an academic exercise. Lives are hanging in the balance and time is running out. We have to step up and take responsibility.

If ever there was a motivation to join and embolden the burgeoning movement of climate activists, it was there on that panel. Not because they were unusual, but precisely because they weren’t. The lies, the avoidance of the issues, the steaming tide of bullshit they spewed forth, this is the typical game of power. They know it, and they know we know. We have to stop respecting it and anyone who plays it.

We might look back to previous generations and see a law as a spearhead of social change, but in fact it was the dam bursting. The politicians have a lot invested in the status quo, it’s what granted and maintains their lofty position. They will defend things as they are up until the point where their credibility can no longer resist, where their power is threatened, then they capitulate.

The activists, too numerous and too individually insignificant for us to even know their names, are the swell that forces the surge. They are not superheroes, not extraordinary people, just ordinary people realising they can achieve extraordinary things. People like me and you. Now is the time to be the ancestors that will make future generations proud.


  1. ‘Real battle begins over third runway at Heathrow’, Daily Telegraph, 10 Jan 2009

  2. ‘Evidence fix led to third runway being approved’, The Times, 9 March 2008

  3. ‘A runway for jobs? It's time aviation's bluff was called’, The Guardian, 14 Jan 2009

  4. For references and more info on these figures, see footnote 15 in the U-Know article ‘Down To Earth’ [link]

  5. ‘Edinburgh to Glasgow high speed rail link '£60m a mile'’, The Scotsman, 14 April 2007 [link]

  6. Presumes track length the same as at present, 394 miles

  7. Airport operators say ‘single figure billions’, but leaked data from the industry suggests £13bn. ‘Heathrow runway may cost £13bn’, Daily Telegraph, 1 Dec 2007 [link]

  8. Commission for Integrated Transport, ‘High-speed rail: international comparisons’, 9 Feb 2004, chapter 4 [link]

  9. Assumes the straight-line distance of 5060 miles. In reality it would be longer.

  10. Roger Kemp, Transport Energy Consumption’, Lancaster University, 10 Sept 2004 (citing his earlier work ‘Environmental impact of high-speed rail’, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Seminar on High Speed Rail Developments, 21 April 2004) [link]

  11. Jim Bliss, ‘Eon’, The Quiet Road, 21 Nov 2008 [link]

  12. For more information on green electricity tariffs, see the U-Know article 'How Green Is Green Electricity?' [link]

  13. George Monbiot, ‘Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning’, p196, Penguin, 2006. Figures given by a senior manager of a big supermarket on condition of anonymity.

  14. ‘China seen surging to top wind turbine maker in 09’, Reuters, 8 Jan 2008 [link]

  15. ‘China aims for first zero emission power by 2015’, Reuters, 23 April 2008 [link]

  16. ‘Next steps on carbon capture readiness and UK demonstration competition', Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, 30 June 2008. [link]

  17. Open letter from Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, to John Hutton, Secretary of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, 1 April 2008 [link]

  18. ‘Wicks: All is lost on global warming without clean coal’, The Guardian, 8 August 2008 [link]

  19. Catherine Brahic, ‘33% of China's carbon footprint blamed on exports’, New Scientist, 28 July 2008 [link]

  20. 2006 figures. China 4.58 tonnes of CO2 per capita, UK 9.66. ‘World Per Capita Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption and Flaring of Fossil Fuels (Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide), 1980-2006’, US Energy information Administration [link]

  21. Official figures exclude shipping and international aviation so the government can pretend emissions are falling when they’re actually rising. And that’s before we factor in the emissions from goods we import (minus goods we export) which should, by any fair count, be on our total

  22. For more on carbon trading, see Carbon Trade Watch

  23. For more about why offsets are bullshit, see my pieces on the topic: Carbon Offsets are a Fraud, Climate Ba-stewards and New Offset Opportunities

  24. The Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon Economy, Sustainable Development Commission, page 6, March 2006 [link]

  25. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers’, Table SPM.6, page 20 [link]

  26. For more on this, see the U-Know article 'Nuclear Is Not The Climate Solution' [link]

  27. For those unfamiliar or nostalgic, these classic Nick Park works are archived on Youtube [link]

  28. Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Fuel Mix Disclosure Data Table, 21 July 2008 [link]

  29. Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, ‘Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Energy’, May 2007, p188 [link]

  30. JW Storm van Leeuwen & P Smith, ‘Nuclear Power the Energy Balance’, 2006 [link]

  31. I wrote an article about that which is uncannily similar to this one! The LibDem in question was then-Shadow Environment minister Chris Huhne, and the article’s called 'The Climate vs The Market'. [link]

  32. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers’ [link]