Alistair Darling’s failure to keep his pledge to put “sustainability at the heart of his budget” may have disappointed campaign groups like Friends of the Earth, but they shouldn’t really be surprised. Earlier this week, the government’s new Committee on Climate Change met for the first time – and got an object lesson in just how effective they are likely to be.
Trade and energy Minister John Hutton chose that very day to make it clear that the government will approve a coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent without specifying “carbon capture” technology as a condition. The extent to which the government’s whole agenda on climate change is dictated solely by business interests, was highlighted when the trade and energy department caved in to pressure from the global energy giant E.ON over the new power station on the Medway Estuary.
In an exchange of emails (obtained by Greenpeace under Freedom of Information), an official in Hutton’s department suggested that permission might be dependent on a commitment to retro-fit carbon capture technology. E.ON’s Martin Land replied: “E.ON is reluctant to specifically reference carbon capture and storage as a consideration without legislation. The Secretary of State has no right to withhold approval for a conventional plant." Just six minutes later, the official emailed back, saying: “I won’t include it.”
So the energy corporation denied the government even the slightest fig leaf to hide their shame. The reality is that carbon capture is currently a pipedream, but the government hoped that writing it in would make the Kingsnorth decision seem less odious. The plant will be one of the country’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas – around 8m tonnes a year. Seven other similar sized or bigger coal-powered stations are planned, driving the UK target of cutting emissions by 60% by 2050 further and further away.
Which brings us back to Lord Adair Turner (former McKinsey consultant and Director General of the CBI, the employers’ organisation) and the Climate Change committee that he chairs. Their role is to monitor how effective the government is in progressing towards the targets in the Climate Change Bill. Interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, he refused to comment on Hutton’s announcement. “I’m not going to get into giving week-by-week comment on specific decisions. We are there to map the path from 2012 to 2050.”
But that path is pretty clear already, if every single “specific decision” is made on the basis that what’s good for business is the only criteria that counts. Turner can learn more about the likely future influence of his committee from Jonathon Porritt, chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, another body advising the government. He told the Today programme: “The government takes our advice seriously on issues where it is convenient for them to do so. On energy efficiency they say it can’t be made to work because our economy cannot tolerate it.”
John Hutton is the minister who this week told the TUC and Labour Party to stop attacking fat cat City bonuses and millionaire salaries. We need more millionaires, he explained, and Labour must "renew our commitment to wealth creation and enterprise in Britain…." So that would be starting with E.ON then?