On 20th August Jeremy Corbyn made a semi-surprise visit to Totem Sustainability’s offices at the BTC Stevenage (we knew it was a labour politician but not who it was). I had the opportunity to talk business and sustainability with the Labour leader and participate in a panel with Jeremy Corbyn, Sharon Taylor (Leader of the Council at Stevenage Borough Council) and Jill Borcherds (Prospective Parliamentary Labour Candidate for Stevenage). Over the coming weeks I’ll be writing a 6-part analysis of the discussions, analysing their proposals and giving my opinion on the topics discussed. Responses may have been shortened and paraphrased for ease of reading, full transcript and recording are available.
In light of the governments 2050 Net Zero Carbon target, and recent publicity of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, I’m starting with Labour’s plans for the energy:
Ian Dodd – The government has committed to achieving net zero carbon by 2050, for many this is too late. What are Labour’s plans for net zero carbon?
Jeremy Corbyn – I moved in parliament on 1st May that the UK parliament become the first in the world to declare a climate emergency. The motion that I proposed was that we declare a climate emergency and require all government departments declare how we would achieve a zero emissions economy. The government’s target is 2050, I agree that’s too late, I would prefer 2030, I’m not sure that’s practical but certainly bring it well before 2050.
Ian’s Response – MP’s did indeed endorse the motion to declare a climate emergency on 1st May 2019. However, four months on, subsequent action has been lacking. The Mayor of London held a free event on 1st July to discuss what this means for Parliament and Legislators, but I cannot find any other actions or announcements which have be made as a result. Obviously, the enduring threat of Brexit is still the dominant force in British politics, but, considering this is meant to be an emergency, time seems to be slipping through our fingers. In Labour’s call for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ it calls for “Making sure 60% of the UK’s electricity and heat comes from clean, renewable and low carbon sources by 2030”, not Net Zero Carbon. If Labour intends to meet a 2030 Net Zero Carbon target, cross party actions need to be agreed and put in motion now. I’ve not completed a full review of Labour’s online literature, but I would expect such an emergency to receive top billing. However, it’s not even one of Labour’s core visions, with just sustainable energy mentioned under “Creating an Economy that Works for All”. Granted, holistic sustainability philosophies may be touched upon in many of the 12 categories outlined, Labour’s approach is not clear at all. My preferred approach would be to develop a sustainability strategy to define how sustainability will be embedded throughout, and strategically support, all other areas of policy. This would then be promoted front and centre as a leading philosophy of the parties governing approach.
Sharon Taylor – We’ve declared our climate emergency here in Stevenage, we have set the date of 2030 because we thought 2050 was too far away. It is a massive task though and the more I look at it the more a realise what a huge task it is. We’re having a big session on this on the 12th September, I’d love you to come along and talk to that session, to my councillors. Do come along and talk to us because we can do as much as we can as a council [sic], we’ve got a lot of influence in what we do, with business, with other public sector partners in Stevenage, with all of the voluntary sector. Everybody’s got to put their mind to this, it’s urgent and it’s got to be done in the next few years. We haven’t got years and decades to do this, we’ve got to do it now, so please come and join that session and talk to us, we’d love to hear from you.
Jeremy Corbyn – And at those sessions, which are being held all over the country, the issues that usually come up are energy efficiency in buildings, building design, planning and transport, and recycling and use of resources. It’s amazing, you get a group of people together and they creatively recognise how they can save an awful lot, just by working closely together.
Ian’s Response – The only content I could find about Stevenage Borough Council declaring a Climate Emergency and targeting Net Zero Carbon by 2030 was published in The Comet. Nothing appears to have been published on the council website, nor any mention of the outcome actions raised during the June 2019 meeting. The council website has an, approximately 15-year-old, environmental policy, GHG reports from 2012/13 and some Sustainable Business Practices which have not been updated since 2013. I would describe these as weak at best, disappointing and underwhelming. To have a global impact, which is what is needed, coordinated and consistent initiatives are required throughout government, with local authorities held to account for being at the forefront of stimulating the needed behaviours in their jurisdictions.
If I were working for the council, I would start by developing a sustainability strategy with clear objectives and targets to underpin the organisational approach. This would probably centre around positioning the council itself as an example of good practice and providing targeted support to local residents and businesses. Then I’d look at implementing management system standards such as ISO 9001 Quality and ISO 14001 Environment, possibly followed by ISO 50001 Energy, or Carbon Trust Certification. These should be simultaneously supported by a strong communication strategy. This would create a foundation from which the council could develop their approach to sustainability, ensuring effective implementation through third party verification. Furthermore, I’d implement annual performance reviews to ensure objectives are on track to be met, but also to demonstrate and communicate the cost savings, new jobs and environmental benefits the strategy had delivered, as well as areas requiring further improvement.
I will be taking up Sharon’s offer to attend the session on 12th September and Totem Sustainability would be excited to help Stevenage Borough Council on their sustainability journey in any way we can.
Jeremy Corbyn – We would put very big investment into things like the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, as well as the Mersey Barrage, which are expensive, but the spinoff effect from these are huge. New jobs and new industries and technology as a result of a clean, sustainable way of producing electricity. The electricity that’s produced by wave, or hydro methods, is obviously constant and largely predictable, and it means at various times of day you’ve got a lot of spare electricity. I’m keen to export that through the interconnection with France and Ireland if necessary, or you can use that spare electricity to make hydrogen by electrolysis, which you can then use to power vehicles.
Follow up audience question from Kieran Feetham (Stevenage Injury Clinic) – Are wind turbines and tidal turbines changing the environment and the way water currents work? Is it detrimental?
Jeremy Corbyn – It depends where and what you do with tidal, for example there has been debate for as long as I can remember about a Severn Barrage. I think the environmental damage caused by a Severn barrage would be huge, I personally don’t support it and I actually think it’s quite unlikely it will ever happen. If you look at others, like the Swansea Lagoon and the Mersey Barrage, in France in the 1960’s, near Saint-Malo there is a tidal energy barrage across a river. It’s not huge, it’s the first one that happened but it’s been there for 30–40 years. Liverpool’s Universities and city region are working with the French authorities on the environmental impact of that, to assess what would happen with the Mersey Barrage. So yes, you’ve got to make an assessment on the environmental impact and ensure you don’t destroy the ecosystem of the river, and you allow migrating fish to go through. It is a question in any big scheme, or indeed with any building, building into it the environmental sustainability and the natural world that goes with it, so you don’t simply put a big lump of concrete across the river and put some turbines through it, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Ian’s Response – I think Jeremy answered the question about the impacts of wind and tidal power well. There are environmental assessments required to get planning permission for these types of projects and you need to balance the negative environmental impact with the positive. Inevitably, sometimes there are unforeseen consequences, but the other option is to do nothing, which I do not think is a viable option.
With regards to exporting surplus energy to France and Ireland, my first reaction is Brexit. This will have a number of impacts on electricity in the form of import/export tariffs and infrastructure investment. There are three possible scenarios:
Remain – We currently enjoy tariff free imports and exports of electricity without any customs requirements.
No Deal – Gov.uk says “If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, a temporary tariff regime will be implemented. This would apply for up to 12 months while a full consultation, and review on a permanent approach, is undertaken. Under the temporary tariff regime, imports of electrical energy into the UK would be eligible for tariff free access.” After this, we will enter WTO rules. These specify how deals are to be structured, but it is up to the negotiating countries to determine the value of the electricity (considered a ‘good’) in a way that “aims for a fair, uniform and neutral system for the valuation of goods for customs purposes — a system that conforms to commercial realities, and which outlaws the use of arbitrary or fictitious customs values”. When it comes to electricity transmission, we only have a handful of possible trading partners: Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. There are also a planned transmission lines to Denmark, Norway and Iceland, but all are members of the EU or operate under and EU agreement, so I wouldn’t expect to be able to negotiate anything better than under a withdrawal agreement, and I would be shocked if we got anywhere near tariff free imports and exports.
Withdrawal Agreement – The only information I can find on electricity, in literature about the current withdrawal agreement (negotiated with Theresa May), refers to maintaining the Single Electricity Market in Northern Ireland, and thus some EU laws on wholesale electricity markets). I could not find anything about the rest of the UK under the deal. If you know more, please do share.
Ultimately, we’re only going to be able to sell surplus energy if there is a demand for it, and if we have surplus to sell. Moreover, considering the EU will probably follow a similar path towards decarbonisation I would imagine there will not be much opportunity to sell future surplus to our existing partners. If we could somehow transport that energy in another form to countries we are not directly connected to, there could be a larger market for us, which brings us to Jeremey’s next suggestion, to convert surplus electricity to hydrogen.
I’m not a chemist but it’s good to understand some of the basics. Approximately 95% of hydrogen today is produced through natural gas reforming. This uses methane and steam with a nickel catalyst to produce hydrogen, and either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, this does not make the hydrogen produced particularly ‘green’, so finding an alternative method to production is preferable. As Jeremy mentions, this is electrolysis, passing an electric current between two cathodes, through water, to produce hydrogen and oxygen. Unfortunately for hydrogen production, those cathodes need to be made of Platinum. Even if the electricity used was ‘free’, the investment required produce hydrogen on a meaningful scale would be considerable. There are alternatives being developed which replace the platinum with carbon non-tubes, as reported by phys.org, but this is still embryonic and would, in itself, require considerable investment before it could be considered as a commercially viable alternative.
Another important consideration is to ask whether converting electricity to hydrogen is desirable? Vehicles appear to be heading down the electric route, and a lot of attention has been placed on battery storage, so where could it be used? There are several advantages hydrogen has over battery storage. It is a far simpler way to store energy. Batteries require rare earth metals and degrade over time. Hydrogen can be stored in metal tanks which, if looked after, have a very long lifetime and are far simpler to maintain. Furthermore, it would be possible to convert the existing natural gas network to a hydrogen network. In fact, the government released a report on converting the natural gas network to hydrogen in October 2018. This would require adapting or replacing natural gas boilers and appliances, and would take approximately 16 years for full coverage, but is a possibility. Alternatively, the hydrogen could be loaded into tankers and transported around the world to other countries, though they would need to have the appropriate infrastructure in place, so initial customers would be very limited.
Moving Energy Forward
Declaring a Climate Emergency is a good start, but without action to support it, it’s as useful as a chocolate teapot. It needs cross party collaboration and business support to be truly impactful.
Local Authorities are a critical part of the solution, translating national policy into practical, local action and stimulating business and communities in their jurisdiction to begin their sustainability journeys. Setting up sessions, such as that taking place on 12th September in Stevenage, are a good start and I look forward to engaging with Stevenage Borough Council, and hope to be part of their strategy moving forward.
One of the biggest barriers to achieving Net Zero Carbon is our reliance on natural gas for heating. Historically, natural gas has been seen as the greener of the fossil fuels, but as the grid de-carbonises I foresee it becoming the elephant in the room, and possibly the hardest part of our energy infrastructure to de-carbonise. Hydrogen and electrification of heating provision appear to be the only two viable options, on a large scale. In reality a mix of the two will be required, but both require significant strategic planning and investment if we are to achieve Net Zero Carbon by 2050, let alone 2030.
If we’re going to achieve anything near Net Zero Carbon by 2030, one thing is clear, action needs to rise above current issues, such as Brexit, and it needs to happen now.
For more about energy and carbon, check out the article Hannah Kershaw of QinetiQ wrote for us “Energy and carbon reporting must lead to actions” .
The responses in this article were not delivered during the panel but have been developed upon subsequent reflection.