Building a Greener Society

30 September 2015

We open our Board meetings with a discussion on key issues that affect how we shape our policy on Building a Greener Society. Here is our non-executive Director Alison’s round-up of news items that caught our attention in September….

As our Board met on 25 September 2015, the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals were being adopted, designed to guide global development up to 2030. The goals set out an ambitious plan to address poverty, hunger, child labour, AIDS and various other problems that blight millions of lives globally. Climate change features heavily. Climate change has its own dedicated target, but many of the other targets directly reference the need to tackle climate change and its impacts in some form or another. Building climate resilient communities and reducing carbon emissions, must be coupled with wider efforts to remove poverty, hunger and inequality. We are pleased to note this updating of the Millennium Development Goals and our hope is that the UN Sustainable Development Goals will bolster support for a new agreement on climate change.

The Pope is continuing to keep climate change high on the political agenda in his visit to the US. To quote the Pope: “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to future generations”. His visit highlights the deep divide in US politics over whether action on climate change is needed or whether business interests come first.

Talking of business interests, the car industry has been thrust into the spotlight, with staggering revelations about VW installing illegal software to rig emissions tests for its diesel engines. A bit of background: diesel engines are popular because they give more miles per gallon and less carbon dioxide per mile than petrol, but diesel exhaust gas can be dirtier, containing fine particles and NOx. (NOx is harmful to human health, both as a gas and when it reacts in the air with other pollutant to form small particulates which can travel deep into the lungs and cause respiratory problems.) Diesel engine technology is supposed to have advanced in leaps and bounds to drastically cut fine particles and NOx, to comply with legal emissions limits. But VW diesel car engines have been revealed to actually produce up to 40 times more NOx pollution than allowed.

Unsurprisingly, there is more to this story than VW’s fraud. The UK, France and Germany have been accused of hypocrisy: they have called for an investigation into the VW test rigging, but just 4 months ago they were lobbying the European Commission behind the scenes to keep outmoded tests for carbon emissions, which are known to underestimate carbon dioxide emissions. Those tests are due to be made more stringent in 2017, but surprise, surprise UK, France and Germany don’t want them to change. Vehicle emissions are responsible for 12% of Europe’s carbon emissions and by 2021, all new cars must meet an EU emissions limit of 95 grams of CO2 per km, putting accurate measurements of real emissions at a premium. Reliable, accurate information should be what every government and manufacturer is striving for, but it seems not to be the case. Surprised?

Plans for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point are back in the news, with the Government announcing the first tranche, worth £2 billion, of the state loan guarantee, designed to attract investors by guaranteeing that if the developer went bust, the tax payer would step in. Hinkley Point if built, could provide 7% of UK’s electricity needs, controversially costing double the current market rate per unit of electricity. George Osborne announced plans for Chinese companies to help finance Hinkley Point, with China developing its own nuclear plant in the UK in the future, possibly at Bradwell in eastern England. We love the way Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, summed up the mish-mash of financial schemes for Hinkley Point as ‘With Profits Nationalisation’ – the private sector get the profit, politicians get the glory and future tax payers and consumers bear the costs.

We were disappointed to hear that the energy company Drax, Western Europe’s largest power station, has pulled out of plans to develop one of the world’s first commercial scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) coal-fired power plants. Drax says the decision to pull out has been driven by the government’s reductions in renewables subsidies. Drax has been a key partner in the White Rose CCS project, which plans to build a new CCS-enabled coal-fired power station next to Drax’s existing plant near Selby. The proposed power station will capture 90 per cent of its carbon emissions, which will be transported through a new pipeline to a permanent storage site beneath the North Sea. Drax will still make its site and its infrastructure available to the project and hopefully other investment will be found to keep the White Rose project on track, but the Government should take heed: there are wider repercussions as a result of the Tories’ ‘slash and burn’ policy on renewables. From a Board point of view, it makes us all the more determined to throw our weight behind the development of renewables.

Finally, since our last Building a Greener Society, Labour has a new leader. We can look forward to hearing Labour’s stance on climate, energy, housing and the green agenda as policy details emerge at this weekend’s party conference and in coming weeks. We can only hope that Labour take a strong stance against the Tory’s current bonfire of green policies, and push the Government for strong, world leading action in the UN Climate Talks in Paris this December.