Mercury rising: three crunch points on climate change this summer

There are major battles ahead for the climate movement. They can be fought – and won.

Guy Shrubsole
19 May 2015
Climate March in London

The fight continues. Flickr/Antonio Acuna. Some rights reserved.

Britain has a new government, and the climate movement is suddenly facing new challenges.

Three crucial decisions will be made this June with huge implications for the fight against climate change – on fracking, on opencast coal, and on a new runway in the South East.

Each of these will have huge impacts on wider struggles the climate movement is engaged in: stopping a renewed dash for gas that could break carbon targets; bringing an end to our use of dirty coal; and stopping breakneck growth in emissions from aviation.

But these are all battles that can be won. Here’s a run-down on the three most urgent challenges the climate movement now faces:

1. Stopping a renewed dash for gas

There have been recurrent fears in recent years of a new dash for gas, with the Chancellor proposing to build up to 40 new gas power stations in a move that would break carbon targets. After the Coalition confirmed its commitment to the 4th carbon budget, these fears receded.

But the Conservatives’ manifesto explicitly pledges a “significant expansion” in new gas plants. By also ruling out a 2030 decarbonisation target for the power sector, the new government has opened the door again to a renewed dash for gas that could exceed carbon targets – one now backed by fresh subsidies in the form of the ‘capacity mechanism’, which pays energy companies to bring forward new gas plants. While investment in gas power stations slowed pending the passage of the Energy Bill in 2013-14, there are signs that investment has started up again, sweetened by these new subsidies.

The Conservative government also remains committed to going ‘all out for shale gas’, despite communities and activists successfully halting fracking for the past four years. Lancashire remains the front line of fracking in the UK, where a crucial planning decision on whether to allow fracking to proceed – already delayed twice this year – will now be taken between 23rd-26th June. If fracking is given the green light, activists across the country must be prepared to respond rapidly. After all, a new round of licensing for oil and gas drilling that could cover 60% of the UK is to be announced imminently – meaning fracking could be coming to a town near you unless this is nipped in the bud.

2. Burying old coal

This February, David Cameron promised publicly to “end the use of unabated coal for power generation.” This would be an historic move – and it’s absolutely right that Britain, having pioneered the use of coal in the industrial revolution, be the first to move on from this outdated and dirty technology. The Committee on Climate Change recommends that to meet climate targets, old coal is taken off the system by the early 2020s, whilst the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s modelling shows 90% of coal plants shutting by 2023.

Ending our reliance on old coal should also mean finally ending the devastating practice of opencast coal mining – an extraction method that wrecks landscapes and damages the health of communities in some of the poorest parts of the country. Extraordinarily, the UK dug up 8 million tonnes of coal from opencast mines last year – and coal production has actually been increasing in England and Wales for the past decade.

In Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, where a vast coal pit already looms over the town, a crucial decision nears on June 24th – whether to give permission for yet another massive opencast mine at Nant Llesg. The Welsh Government must call this decision in and heed the call of Welsh Assembly Members who recently voted for a moratorium on opencast coal. If they fail to, it’s vital that the climate movement gives its support to the community in Merthyr – a cause that last drew activists’ attention in 2007-9 but has since unforgivably fallen off the radar.

3. Halting a new runway in the South East

The climate movement may soon find itself having to re-fight a battle it thought it had won – a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. Back in 2007, climate activists and green groups joined with local communities to set up the Heathrow Climate Camp and oppose a third runway at Heathrow airport. David Cameron went into the 2010 election promising there would be no expansion. But midway through his first term, aviation industry lobbying forced Cameron to review his policy. 

The Davies Commission on airport expansion is due to report in June, and may recommend a third runway at Heathrow or a second runway at Gatwick. If the government accepts either recommendation, the consequences would be devastating for the climate, local air pollution and noise levels. If it’s Heathrow, Boris Johnson has said he will ‘lie down in front of the bulldozers’ to prevent it, and Zac Goldsmith has pledged to resign and trigger a by-election (not something a government with a 12-seat majority should want to encourage). If it’s Gatwick, the government will face equally tough opposition from an unconvinced public and local Conservative MPs. The climate movement must be ready to spring into action: aviation campaigning is about to return with a vengeance.

These are battles that can be won – and the climate movement is already gearing up to fight these decisions tooth and nail. There are lots of ways to get involved:

  1. Sign the petition to stop fracking in Lancashire being given the green light in late June.
  2. Come to the Reclaim the Power camp at Didcot (29th May-2nd June) and Friends of the Earth’s Basecamp (12th-14th June) to discuss, plan and take action.
  3. Come to lobby your MP in Westminster on 17th June in the biggest climate lobby there’s ever been.

All this, of course, is only the start – but now the mercury’s rising, it’s time for the climate movement to rise up faster.

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