We could be about to make history... again

Oliver Hayes

10 October 2013

Not since the Climate Change Act in 2008 has such a big step forward in the fight against climate change in this country been within reach. In 2008, two hundred thousand people came together to persuade Parliament to pass a law to reduce Britain’s carbon emissions by four fifths. It was historic, and we’re on the brink of doing something very similar in the coming weeks.

28 October: a vote for clean power

For two years the debate has raged about whether Britain will switch to a clean energy system, powered by the wind, sun and waves, or continue on a fossil-fuelled path towards climate chaos. Our campaign for a 2030 ‘decarbonisation target’, the vital measure that would drive the move to clean power, has been at the centre of it.

The Government’s independent climate advisors – the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an expert body established under the Climate Change Act – say the target is essential in order to meet our climate goals in the most cost-effective way. They are very clear: without changing our energy system, we can’t stop our climate from changing.

And on 28 October, we’ll see whether the House of Lords agrees with the CCC when they vote on whether to include a clean power target in the Government’s Energy Bill.

It’s a rare thing to say, but we think we can win. The BBC reported that the Government is looking at Plan Bs in case of a defeat. And today the FT reports that the Coalition is considering closing a loophole that exempts existing coal plants from planned new pollution standards - in order to try to quell a second potential rebellion in the Commons on a decarbonisation target. Limiting unabated coal in climate terms is a basic first step – but a target is still needed to drive investment in green power and stop a new dash for gas. In political terms it would be a major deal and would mean the campaign to move to clean power would have achieved a very important victory.

Growing momentum

It’s easy to see why Government are worried about a Lords defeat. There’s staggering momentum behind the clean power target. In June MPs rebelled en masse when the Bill was in the Commons, following tireless campaigning from Friends of the Earth and other environmental campaigners across the country. MPs from all parties supported the target – but the Government opposed it and we narrowly lost by a mere 11 votes.

Since then, no-doubt bolstered by the increasing political momentum, calls for a target have intensified: businesses, trade unions, faith groups, farmers, investors, manufactures, charities and campaigning organisations have all weighed in.

Now, with the Bill in the Lords, there is a new alliance between the independent Peers, bishops, Labour, Green, and rebel coalition peers that could outnumber those voting with the Government.

Lib Dem promises

Supporting a clean power target is official Liberal Democrat policy, but Lib Dem Ministers have been telling their MPs and Peers not to vote for it because of a behind the scenes deal they’ve struck up with Chancellor George Osborne. Despite this, half of Liberal Democrat backbencher MP rebelled and voted for a target this summer - the biggest rebellion since tution fees. If half as many Lib Dem peers vote in line with their own party policy on 28 October, we could be onto something. But it will only happen if Peers stick to their guns and vote the right way on the day.

If on 28 October the Lords vote to include a target, Government will be forced to think again. If they then don’t listen to Peers and refuse again to include a target they’d face the prospect of a second Commons rebellion and further defeats in the Lords – not only embarrassing  politically but also a problem when lots of new energy projects are waiting on the Bill finally becoming law before they begin. I’m not sure this is a risk the Government would be willing to take.

What next?

What would winning a clean power target mean? It would mean an end to George Osborne’s reckless dash for gas. It would mean thousands of new renewable energy projects – and thousands of new jobs alongside it. It would also mean genuine action on climate change, which also puts the UK in a stronger position to negotiate a global agreement.

It looks like Peers might understand the momentous nature of this moment – we’ll see if Government do.

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