Think carefully before backing the climate and ecological emergency bill

Nadia Whittome MP recently wrote in LabourList to explain why she is supporting the climate and ecological emergency bill tabled by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. The bill is also supported by Labour MPs including Clive Lewis and Alex Sobel. But there are strong reasons for which to be sceptical of this proposed legislation sponsored by the organisation Extinction Rebellion.

The urgency of addressing climate change is undisputed on the left. Nevertheless, while it is clear that action must be taken, there must be a discussion about what those actions need to be. The danger is that if we do not move the debate towards the shared goals of lowering carbon emissions, protecting well-paid, skilled jobs, and protecting the interests of families and households, the issue could become another culture war divide, potentially damaging for the Labour Party.

For example, a major factor in the general election defeat of the Australian Labor Party in last year’s general election was its inability to bridge the gap between its greener, urban and often university-educated supporters in the big cities, and its traditional working-class voters, particularly in Queensland, who support coal mining. At the 2019 Labour Party conference, there were undignified scenes when energy workers in the GMB trade union were heckled by some constituency delegates.

The climate and ecological emergency bill proposes to dangerously bypass democracy and public scrutiny altogether. It says the government should contract out the policy area to a “reputable, independent body”, which would convene a ‘citizens’ assembly’, which Extinction Rebellion have clarified will be selected from the population at random, like a jury. This citizens’ assembly will hear from “experts” and if the assembly agrees on a measure with 80% in favour, the “Secretary of State must seek agreement with the assembly”, and the “Secretary of State must implement the strategy” (the only exceptions being where the measure would either spend public funds, or raise taxes). The assembly would bypass normal parliamentary processes, though the measures they agree could have vast impact on communities, families and the economy.

This is a very problematic approach, and the support for it by Labour MPs could undermine confidence in the party’s policy of involving affected workers and trade unions in any just transition. The climate and ecological emergency bill treats the general public as an obstacle to be overcome, and this is the approach most likely to alienate people who could be won over if they are respected and engaged with.

A good example of a sector that is difficult to decarbonise, where there is a need for the public to be engaged with in finding a solution, is domestic heating. BEIS recently published the results of a very detailed survey on public attitudes to how the heating of our homes can be decarbonised.  Encouragingly, this shows high levels of support for measures to move to low-carbon heating, but equally the public has little awareness of the different technical options.

This is an area where there is a vital need to gain democratic legitimacy for any measures that will affect household bills. Gas heating is substantially cheaper than electric heating (about 4p per kWh, rather than 15p), but heating our homes is responsible for 15% of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. There will be a headwind against decarbonisation if it is be paid for by huge increases in bills for working people.

For many green campaigners, the answer is to shift all heating to electricity, with most homes being switched to a “heat pump”. This seems to be the preferred route for many in the Civil Service and academia. Heat pumps are not new technology, but most people in Britain have limited awareness of them, as evidenced by the recent BEIS report.

Heat pumps are a very efficient form of electric heat, but a report by Element Energy for the Westminster government concluded that, even if the costs of heat pumps fell considerably, their lifetime costs would always be higher for consumers than gas. There is also a question mark about the huge expansion of electricity capacity required and whether that would be sourced from renewables.

There is a viable alternative: to maintain the gas grid and its connections to 24 million homes, but to green the gas within it, perhaps to a blend of hydrogen and biomethane (which is chemically the same as the natural gas we already use, yet made from renewable sources). The viability of such a conversion is proven. British households were converted to natural gas between 1967 and 1977, but before that they used to use town gas, itself about 50% hydrogen and made from coal. However, hydrogen can also be made by splitting water, using electricity, into hydrogen and water, with no carbon emissions.

Regrettably, instead of encouraging viable technical solutions, the climate and ecological emergency bill actually seeks to exclude one of the most promising technologies that can address climate change. Extinction Rebellion opposes carbon capture and storage (CCS), whereby it is possible to capture waste CO2 from industrial processes and electricity generation and store it permanently underground. 

Instead, the bill states that the UK must only use “natural climate solutions” to achieve net zero, which they define as measures such as “reforestation, sustainable land management, and the restoration of wetlands, peat bogs and coastal ecosystems”.

Quite apart from the fact that wetlands actually produce natural methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, these measures simply don’t scale up to provide sufficient decarbonisation without an almost complete dismantling of our modern, urban way of life. In contrast, the British government recently revealed that even at today’s levels of CO2 production, we could store 170 years’ worth of CO2 in the UK – and when combined with other measures to reduce CO2 production, we have capacity for hundreds of years.

Scepticism about CCS is misplaced. Norway has just approved a €2.1bn project to capture CO2 and store it under the North Sea, and a British company, Equinor, has just announced the first, at scale, production facility for hydrogen with carbon capture offshore in the Humber estuary. Instead of doubting CCS, the Labour Party and environmental movements should be advocating more of it: especially when combined with renewable feedstocks, like biomass or municipal waste, CCS actually reduces greenhouse gas levels.

Most people have a general sympathy with the broader objectives of Extinction Rebellion to increase the sense of urgency about climate change. However, that does not mean every proposition from Extinction Rebellion should be supported. Labour MPs in particular should be cautious in endorsing what seems to be an elitist plan to bypass democracy, and to narrow down the technical options by which we can achieve our shared aims.

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