23 February 2017: the patriotic case for climate action

Yesterday I went to a speech by Tim Farron MP, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Powering a New Economy: how a clean energy revolution means Britain can lead the world. https://timfarron.co.uk/en/article/2017/1202494/farron-calls-for-morecambe-bay-tidal-lagoon

I hadn’t heard Farron speak before. He read the speech, unlike David Cameron who delivered speeches without notes during his husky-hugging leader of the opposition days. But Farron then answered questions well and with conviction. So I was impressed. His main point was that there must be an end to the negative commentary about climate which appeals only to the “hessian bag brigade”. The climate issue must be taken out of the green box. We need to communicate a vision based on prosperity, innovation and patriotism, and “inspire people to back it”.

The speech did begin with some doom and gloom. Farron said that the hard Brexit being pursued by the UK government will be very painful, but will be like a flesh wound compared to uncontrolled climate change. He welcomed the Paris climate agreement, and commended the EU for the role it played in “raising the bar” and securing agreement. But he warned, correctly, that Trump’s arrival in the White House could unravel Paris, by giving other countries an excuse to ignore the promises made. Farron used the term “climate ignorers” to describe politicians like prime minister Theresa May who do not dispute the science but do not do anything significant to limit climate change. This is, I think, a good term. (May has only been prime minister for just over 6 months, so it is a little early to dismiss her as an ignorer. I’m prepared to give her a couple more months.)

Farron then lauded the achievements of the 2010-15 Coalition government, during which the Lib Dems were in charge of the energy and climate department. He said, correctly, that during this time installed renewable energy capacity had tripled. This was indeed an impressive achievement. But Farron’s subsequent remark that in 2015 the UK was leading the way on renewables was not correct. In 2015 we were third from bottom of the European renewables league (the proportion of total energy use coming from renewables), above only Malta and Luxembourg. That’s a performance which makes even the England football team look quite successful.

The Lib Dem leader then outlined his vision for a “clean, innovative, prosperous” energy revolution. That’s very much in line with the Climate Answers belief that controlling climate change will make us healthier, happier and richer. Farron went on to link this to patriotism. He pointed out that the Victorians had led the first industrial revolution by investing in rail and other infrastructure, and that we Brits could lead another industrial revolution. The aim should be to become fully energy self-sufficient. As an island nation, we should “harness the power of the seas”, offshore wind (the one type of renewable energy in which we are now leading the world) and tidal.

Farron called for an immediate go ahead for Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. “Do it today. It would be emblematic; totemic”. He also proposed a Tidal Lagoon Authority to identify appropriate sites after Swansea – he spoke of “up to 10”. He said that lagoons could provide a tenth of UK electricity, and increase flood protection. They use tried and tested technology, and last 120 years. Lagoons are not the whole answer, but have a key role to play.

Becoming energy self-sufficient does not, Farron explained, mean turning our back on trade. Instead, an innovative energy revolution would enable the UK to export our technologies. (He didn’t single out tidal lagoons in this respect, but if we are the first to build a tidal lagoon the expertise and approach clearly will be exportable.)

How will this energy revolution be unleashed? In part by providing some public money: Farron proposed a British Infrastructure Development Bank, with £5 billion of public funds which would be used to leverage in private sector finance. So it would be a proper bank, unlike the Green Investment Bank which the coalition set up but which has not been allowed to borrow, and is now being sold off. The Infrastructure Bank would help finance energy infrastructure, but also housing, including energy efficiency improvement of the existing stock. So it sounds like a British version of Germany’s KfW – an excellent model to follow.

I asked Farron whether he thought it worth campaigning to keep the UK in the emerging European Union post-Brexit; he said that it was. Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has said the same, so I’ll be doing some work on this in the coming weeks and months. Farron was also asked to comment on the government’s nuclear small modular reactor competition. He didn’t reply to this from the podium, so I asked him afterwards. He said that he isn’t opposed to nuclear in principle. Lib Dem policy is to make the UK carbon neutral by 2050. If this can be done without nuclear, they will propose a non-nuclear route. If it cannot, they will support nuclear.

Lib Dem Energy spokesperson Lynne Featherstone is leading work on assessing how to deliver this Lib Dem target. I’ve attended some roundtable discussions she’s held. Lynne and the team working with her are also impressive. It’s excellent that the Lib Dems continue to take the climate issue seriously.


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