I am writing to you as one of your constituents to express my concerns over the new Infrastructure Bill. This bill is so big and complex, and covers so many topics, that it makes a mockery of democracy. It epitomises the rising trend of legislation-stuffing: cramming so many unrelated issues into one bag that parliamentary votes become meaningless. MPs must either accept this great bundle of unrelated measures in its entirety or reject it in its entirety. This means laws can pass which no one in their right mind would have voted for.
The three main elements of the bill that concern me most however are:
Air pollution is now the world’s chief killer. In 2012, it was the source of around 7 million premature deaths. In the UK, it has reached illegal highs and takes the lives of 29,000 people every year. A new report from the environmental audit committee dubs air pollution “a public health imperative”, and concludes that to save lives “urgent change is needed”.
But the infrastructure bill doesn’t mention anything about clean air targets. Instead, it emphasises big road investment to the tune of £15bn. This includes 1,300 miles in new traffic lanes. Road traffic is the primary contributor to air pollution in most parts of the UK. And new roads don’t cut congestion. Even government studies show that. They simply lead to more jams, exacerbate emissions and erode our countryside. Increasing major road capacity simply stimulates a further growth in traffic, which means that more road schemes are needed etc etc. In the long run, congestion returns and pollution is greater as total traffic volume increases. The main beneficiaries are road building companies.
Labour is outraged of course, but not from any climate or health concern – it simply sulked that the government was all talk, and chastised it for failing to invest sooner – not just for roads but for airport expansion too.
Recent Department for Transport figures showed that local sustainable transport schemes returned £5 for every £1 spent. Clearly therefore, our £15bn would be far better used repairing existing roads, improving footpaths and adding cycle paths and on initiatives to boost public transport, walking and cycling.
Oil & Gas
Worst still, among this bill’s outrageous and scarcely-debated provisions, slipped in by the government some time after parliamentary debates began, is a measure that undermines every claim it has made about preventing dangerous climate change. It is a legal obligation on current and future governments to help trash the world’s atmosphere.
The government already has a legal obligation to do the opposite. The Climate Change Act 2008, supported by all the major parties, commits successive governments to minimise the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Infrastructure Act 2015 will commit successive governments to maximise them. Needless to say, that’s not quite how it is expressed. The bill obliges governments to produce strategies for “maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum”: in other words for getting as much oil out of the ground as possible. Oil is extracted to be burnt; burning it releases greenhouse gases; maximising recovery means maximising greenhouse gases.
The Infrastructure Act, if passed – and so far it is scarcely being contested will be the Climate Change Act’s evil twin. Both acts oblige current and future governments to report at fixed periods on how they will achieve their contradictory objectives. The same person, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, will be responsible for both policies: ensuring that the UK both consumes less oil and produces more.
But there could not be a greater contrast between the ways in which the two acts (or their relevant clauses) were developed. The Climate Change Act was the result of a massive campaigning effort, over many years, by citizens’ movements that mobilised public opinion and pressed MPs to act on it. The provisions in the infrastructure bill were slipped surreptitiously into the back of a legislative juggernaut that was already rolling down a six-lane motorway. In other words, the first act was an example of how democracy is supposed to work; the second is an example of how it gets corrupted.
Now, on the day that MPs sit down in committee to discuss this bill, the journal Nature publishes the most detailed scientific paper yet on how much fossil fuel should be left in the ground if we’re to have a chance of preventing more than 2C of global warming. To deliver a 50% probability (which is not exactly reassuring) of no more than 2C of warming this century, the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel reserves unexploited. As I’m sure you know, reserves are just a small fraction of resources (which means all the minerals in the Earth’s crust). The reserve is that proportion of a mineral resource which has been discovered, quantified and is viable to exploit in current conditions: in other words that’s good to go.
The Nature paper estimates that a third of the world’s oil reserves, half its gas reserves and 80% of its coal reserves must be left untouched to avert extremely dangerous levels of global warming. 2C is dangerous enough; at present we are on course for around 5C by the time the century ends, with no obvious end in sight beyond 2100. The only sensible response to such findings, which some have been advocating for years, is a global agreement to leave these unburnable fossil fuels in the ground. But it’s not just that no such agreement exists, no such agreement has ever been mooted.
Researching Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall discovered that there has not been a single proposal, debate or even position paper on limiting fossil fuel production put forward during international climate negotiations. “From the very outset fossil fuel production lay outside the frame of the discussions and, as with other forms of socially constructed silence, the social norms among the negotiators and policy specialists kept it that way.”
While most states have not taken the astonishing, ecocidal step of making it a legal obligation, almost all are pursuing the same policy as the United Kingdom: maximising the production of fossil fuels. And almost all pay lip service to the idea of minimising greenhouse gas emissions. There is no attempt to resolve this contradiction, or even to acknowledge it.
George Mombiot was the first person to suggest in the media that the best means of addressing climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground, in a Guardian column in 2007. Since then, this solution has been championed by the indefatigable Bill McKibben, through his Do the Math tour and 350.org, and it has been picked up by many other organisations. But still politicians pretend not to hear. Even the current secretary of state for energy and climate change in the UK, Ed Davey, who is often fairly responsive, blocks his ears and sings loudly when the crashing contradictions in his role are mentioned.
Were the world’s governments to regulate the wellhead rather than just the tailpipe, logistically the task would be a thousand times easier. Instead of trying to change the behaviour of 7bn people, they would need to control just a few thousand corporations. These companies would buy permits to extract fossil fuels in a global auction. As a global cap on the amount of fossil fuel that could be burnt came into force, the price would rise, making low carbon technologies, such as wind, solar and nuclear, much better investments. The energy corporations would then have no choice but to start getting out of dirt and into clean technologies. The money from the auction could be used either to compensate poorer nations for not following us down the coal hole or to help them survive in a world in which some dangerous warming – but hopefully no more than 2C – will inevitably occur.
This government’s on a shale crusade and the infrastructure bill paves the way for this whole new fossil fuel industry. The bill awards the fracking industry sweeping new powers to run pipelines under private land without the consent of owners. It’s opposed by 75% of us, but what does public opinion matter?
Meanwhile, the UK’s renewables industry struggles to get a word in edge ways. The bill rightly talks a lot about jobs creation – the Department of Energy and Climate Change predicts fracking could generate up to 32,000. But despite the government’s cuts, the renewables industry already supports more than 100,000 jobs and a nationwide energy efficiency programme could create an additional 108,000 jobs every year between 2020 and 2030. The UK has some of Europe’s least energy-efficient housing – energy efficiency should be our number one infrastructure priority. But the infrastructure bill doesn’t even mention it.
To be fair, the bill does give a nod to community energy ownership rights – a small step in the right direction. But we should be taking giant leaps. Fracking has a limited lifespan.
Ed Miliband recently proclaimed tackling climate change as “the most important thing” he could do in politics. If that’s true he should oppose The Infrastructure Bill and oppose Fracking. We’d receive a far richer return on our billions, economically and in energy security by going all out for homegrown renewables and energy efficiency. This would create jobs, slash emissions and cut fuel bills.