So it shouldn’t really have been a great surprise when on the 19th March this year Cumbria County Council voted unanimously to approve a new £165m coal mine and coking plant. That word unanimously means that the Labour party members voted for it. The Liberal Democrat members voted for it. And the Conservatives led the way.
It is easy to make sound bites. It is a lot harder to stick to your stated principles under pressure. Especially if you don’t really believe in them. And the ultimate expert on this is Michael Gove. He has said some excellent things about environmental policy and introduced some good headline policies that have attracted a lot of attention and helped him relaunch his reputation. So he introduced charges on plastic bags, he has started to phase out plastic straws and he has told local councils that they must eventually recycle food waste. Then he proceeded to give his full backing to fracking.
The Labour party are similarly conflicted. They like the votes that come with environmental action. They don’t like annoying trade unions in the nuclear industry. They have therefore consistently championed energy generation via clumsy over-priced nuclear fission plants and also consistently shovelled the on costs of cleaning up the mess onto the public. Simpler, cheaper, quicker technological solutions to energy such as better insulation, better storage, or requiring every new building to generate as much energy as it uses don’t attract the same solid Labour party support in practice.
All the major parties claim to be in support of some policy proposals that are green. It isn’t hard to find ideas being articulated and occasionally even modest amounts of money being spent on measures such as investing in electric vehicle technology infrastructure or research into better batteries. Yet their understanding of the scale and the speed of the transition that needs to be made is weak in the extreme. So is their grasp of how fast others are moving.
In just one city in China (Shenzhen) there are 20,000 electric buses. That is more than is currently planned for the whole of the UK. China is investing heavily in solar energy and in energy storage. The UK keeps cancelling any subsidies for it the second it looks remotely like becoming profitable. In Norway over half of all cars sold are now fully electric and in a country with a very spread out population there is no difficulty in getting a vehicle charged. When I became a Craven District Councillor two years ago there wasn’t a single publicly funded electric vehicle charging point in the whole of North Yorkshire.
We know from the introduction of computers that when new technology starts to take off it happens much more rapidly than anyone expected and produces consequences none of us can foresee. We also know that the businesses and the countries that embraced that technology prospered whilst those that stuck with the past didn’t.
The transition to a low carbon, low plastic economy and society requires major changes to production and distribution systems that have to be led by far sighted public planners and innovative businesses. Consumers can and do exert incredibly helpful pressure to change but they are chasing the tail of the problem. Unless we progressively change the way we produce, distribute and dispose of everything that we use our environmental problems will continue to get worse.
That requires a fundamental shift in values. It requires government action to incentivise and to fund positive changes and equally strong government action to inflict charges and disincentives on the use of fossilised technologies that harm communities and environments.
There is only one political party in the UK that shows the least understanding of the system wide changes that are needed and the direction of development of future technology.
For all its flaws, all its amateurism and all its occasionally outright daft policies, the Green Party has at least grasped that we are in a really dangerous environmental, societal and economic crisis and we don’t have the luxury of time. We need to embark now on systematic planned changes.
You can put your vote behind that. Or you can express your support for parties that will vote for a coal mine if it wins them a bit of cheap local popularity. It is up to you. But if you vote tactically then you guarantee that even if you win you will get second best. If you vote Green you will be sending a clear message about how many people recognise that things need to change at speed. It is remarkable how fast the other political parties are to respond when they think there are signs that more people are inclined to vote Green. They quickly put a lot more green policies in their manifesto and even implement some of them. Until the next time their naked self-interest runs counter to their newly green credentials. Then they all vote for the coal mine!