The Labour Movement for Europe (LME) and SERA (Labour’s Environment Campaign) co-organised an event on ‘Energy, Environment and Europe. Why Working Together Makes Sense’ in the House of Commons on Tuesday 27 November 2012. Introducing the purpose of the event, LME chair David Schoibl pointed out that Europe can no longer be seen only as an issue of foreign policy and foreign relations. Rather, he said, the concept of Europe is an integral part of many broader policy areas, such as environmental policy. The event which the LME has co-organised with SERA, is the result of the LME’s plan to highlight the importance of individual policy areas in the context of Europe, and is planned to be the first in a series of co-operations with other socialist societies, trade unions and other progressive organisations.
Opening the debate, David Norman, Campaigns Director at WWF said that from his perspective the European Union is a great example for what is possible when people cooperate. As an example, David mentions the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which he calls ‘maybe the best piece of environmental legislation which has ever been done’. He explained that this directive is an example of how working together can make it possible to come up with real pragmatic solutions which overcome short-term interest which otherwise so often hampers the political process.
David regrets that in general public discourse in the UK the EU is often portrayed as a caricature of itself. UK media and Euro-critics like to paint a picture of the EU as a bureaucratic organisation which dreams up random requirements which restrict business.
David points out that in reality the environment is a good example for a field in which regulation is hard to restrict to nation-states’ borders. Rivers flow freely across borders, fish swim in rivers across borders, birds fly over borders. If people want no new regulation from Europe, they should be careful what they ask for. In David’s experience companies have benefited from streamlined policy across Europe, rather than having to deal with different sets of old and new regulation in 27 countries. In the USA, companies often call for federal regulation to comply with as it can become quite difficult for them to adhere to differing standards in 50 states. Now in Europe, critics call for less ‘central’ regulation without realizing that business, rather than being hampered by bureaucracy, can actually benefit from cross-border regulation streamlining.
The WWF’s experience has also been that the best businesses, who invest in low-carbon outputs and similar positive infrastructure, benefit from the European Union, as they cannot be so easily undercut by companies which just want to enter a market to strip assets and profits. This also leads to a more sustainable, investment climate by providing certainty for investors.
In David’s view, the next big challenge Europe faces in environmental terms is whether it will succeed in sorting out electricity transmission across Europe. Currently, energy production and distribution is set up on a national level, which means that there are times of energy shortage at peak times and over-supply at other times, which is not efficient. David described how a European Super Grid, could lead to a dramatic improvement in transmission costs and reduce reliance on high-carbon solutions for peak needs. Similarly, current concepts of renewable energy development are not efficient, as they do not take regional strengths and weaknesses to produce certain kinds of renewables efficiently into account enough.
How the challenge of a pan-European power grid will be dealt with is not a question of what is technically possible. Instead, it is a question of governance and political vision, of whether politicians are ready to argue for a pragmatic cross-border system.
Jonathan Gaventa from E3G explained that his organisation focuses on energy policy and works internationally. He quoted Ed Miliband, who recently (at Whitelee Wind Farm in Scotland) said “We are better off working together. We are better off building the green economy together. And we are better off rising to the challenge of climate change together.”. Jonathan pointed out that what Ed said about UK-Scottish cooperation is also true for EU-UK cooperation.
Where we are today in climate change is that we have a legally binding Act. However, the challenge we face is how we can move towards a low-carbon economy while maintaining jobs and keeping energy prices for consumers low enough.
Like the WWF, he also sees moving to an EU energy super grid as the best solution to keeping cost down. E3G has been involved in modelling which predicts up to 40% less need for power back-up systems which we need at the moment.
The UK can disproportionately benefit from EU-wide cooperation on this. The UK does need new power supplies. To meet this need, the new Osborne energy plan is to build a series of gas-fired power stations quickly to meet immediate needs. This does not take into account that those would be time-limited and would need to be closed down after a couple of years to comply with the Climate Change Act.
Jonathan pointed out that energy prices are 30-40% lower in France, Scandinavia and the Benelux countries. Ireland has off-shore capacity and is eager to export energy. Long-term, the UK has the strongest off-shore potential in Europe. But to benefit from all these factors, a strong European super grid is necessary, which is less likely to happen if the UK does not show political leadership on the issue. The rules governing the new emerging energy markets are still being written, so-to-speak, but at the moment, with its current attitude to European cooperation, the UK is rather a policy-taker than a policy maker.
E3G urged Labour supporters and the party overall to co-operate as much as possible with sister parties across the continent on this important issue of energy policy, in order to help work towards a joined up approach to future energy policy across Europe.
He pointed out that it was unfortunate that the new budget post for ‘Connecting Europe’ which was supposed to finance work on the Super Grid in the EU Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) 2014-2020, was first in line to be dropped from the Commission proposals responding to the demands for the cuts from the UK and from other net contributing countries . He called on Labour to support a smarter budget rather than just a smaller budget.
Labour Shadow DEFRA-secretary Mary Craig pointed out that Labour achieved much in environmental policy during its years in government. We are coming up to the 4th anniversary of the Climate Change Act.
Mary is interested in the issue of narrative used in environmental politics. She said that we have learnt that talking about global warming does not make the problems we face real enough for people – they don’t feel it when temperatures on average go up by a degree. Instead, it is important to keep talking about climate change, to bring home the challenge to citizens and voters. Sudden, unpredictable weather conditions are more tangible and can highlight environmental challenges we face more directly.
Like David from the WWF Mary also points out the limitations of a purely national approach to some areas of climate change. Fish and bird populations do not care about borders. Like the WWF, Mary agreed that companies can benefit from streamlined European-level regulation, and said that in her experience even countries like China sometimes look to Europe for policy models which they can use as their own regulation frameworks develop and mature.
Mary saw the Tories narrative on anything European as cheap. The larger party in government seems to react with immediate opposition to anything ‘coming from Europe’. This attitude has a negative impact on some very pragmatic projects in the environment sector in the UK, where large companies’ investments and potential job creation plans are hampered by uncertainty about future government policy and commitment.
Mary also sees the next European elections in 2014 as an opportunity to talk about a new green industrial revolution. One key problem in the run-up to the elections is that organisations like the Taxpayers Alliance are very proactive in media call-ins, providing talking heads and opinion pieces in all sorts of outlets. Labour does not have a similar set-up on the progressive side, and Mary urged SERA and LME members to be more proactive in engaging with their local media, and in actively countering misinformation and simplification of issues.
In closing the event both LME’s David Schoibl and SERA’s Cllr. Leonie Cooper (chairing the event) agreed that Labour’s new policy hub Your Britain and Labour’s more open and transparent policy (in)forming process will allow for taking this debate to a wider audience within and outside the party and keep involving NGOs and Civil Society Organisations in making the case for sustainable green growth in the UK, in Europe and beyond.