Of Kingsnorth and carrier bags

In the war to prevent environmental catastrophe, hearts and minds now matter as much as logic and economics. If huge cuts in CO2 emissions are going to start within the next decade, then widespread public support and understanding must come first.

We - the environmental professionals - may not be comfortable with it, but policy-making has to become more touchy-feely in such a war. Symbols matter. Actions and decisions send out wider messages about where government is headed, what is expected of people, what will happen in future.

For disposable carrier bags, the government seems to understand this. But when it comes to coal-fired power stations or airport expansion, or even cleaning up Whitehall’s own act (see p 5 ), it just hasn’t got it. Or, worse, it has, but interest groups prevent it from following through on its convictions.

Government says it is ready to compel retailers to charge customers for bags unless they quickly find ways of drastically cutting their use (see p 4  and p 8 ). It appears to be ripping up a rather feeble earlier agreement with retailers to curb bag consumption.

In the great scheme of things, the UK’s profligate use of throwaway carriers is a relatively minor environmental threat. Very few end up killing sea creatures and many are used as household kitchen bin liners. But they have come to symbolise reckless wastefulness. Charging for them sends the right messages about change and conservation to everyone.

Yet government rejects the idea that consenting to a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent symbolises a great lack of seriousness about slashing CO2. There are UK and EU policies to develop carbon capture and storage for big fossil fuel burning plants. There is an emissions trading scheme that will cover the new Kingsnorth. So, it says, grow up, get serious and see the big picture, you silly greens - including the climate campers who intend to march on Kingsnorth this summer.

It is difficult for ministers to long delay a decision on this 1,600-megawatt beast, which would be the UK’s first coal-fired power station for more than a quarter of a century. The old coal burner it will replace on the Medway estuary must close within a few years, under the EU’s Large Combustion Plants Directive. In the absence of any plan to cut rising electricity consumption, new plant is needed ‘to keep the lights on’.

But here’s a bit of advice to government and Kingsnorth’s owner, Eon. When you do get around to giving consent, be absolutely sure you have a convincing agreement for sequestering the eight million tonnes of CO2 it will produce each year. Something that will definitely happen, within a declared time period. If not, you cannot be serious about climate change.

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