Responding to populism: we need more politics in energy, not less!

| 7th December 2016
A shining example of community renewables - the 'Solar Settlement' in Freiburg, Germany.  Photo: deedavee easyflow via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
A shining example of community renewables - the 'Solar Settlement' in Freiburg, Germany. Photo: deedavee easyflow via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
To secure the clean energy transformation for the long term we must get the good news out there, writes Natalie Bennett - driving forward a popular movement for warm, comfortable homes, affordable fuel bills, community renewables and thriving local economies.
If you don't make politics something you do, then it's something that gets done to you - by the vested interests and the 1%. We can't keep electing the wrong people and hope they'll do the right thing: it's time for us all to get political!

It's a pall that hangs over almost every meeting in every sector of society at the moment: the rise of the populist right.

And it was certainly hanging in the air at the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group conference in London this week.

A Danish researcher noted that even though her nation was being held out as a model of energy transition, even its advances were very vulnerable to political change, with a push to liberalise infrastructure, the state seeking to make money from its assets, rather than secure their future.

But it was great to see that rather than retreating into technocratic calculations about how things 'should' be, the issue of how politically to get to a secure, safe, sensible energy policy was front and centre at the conference session at which I spoke.

One speaker from the floor summed it up very well: "we need more politics in energy policy, not less."

Amy Mount from the Green Alliance suggested that the answer to 'post-truth' politics was more transparency.

A massive failure to communicate the good news

There was an acknowledgement that while Britain was leading the world in 2008 with the Climate Change Act, there hadn't been the leadership to explain it to the British people.

The need to take action hasn't been properly explained, nor have the benefits of new policies in energy, transport and other sectors of the economy that would not only cut carbon emissions but also improve people's lives.

The exciting possibilities of an energy-generating democracy haven't been highlighted - with community-owned energy offering voters control over the type and placement of locally owned renewables whose profits fund community facilities and projects while local investors receive returns that go back into the local economy.

The surety of a warm, comfortable, affordable-to-heat home for everyone that could come from investing in housing as part of our national infrastructure hasn't been made clear.

The change that could come from this decentralisation - reducing the lobbying power and vested interests of the Big Six energy companies, who are making massive profits from the failed privatised system - hasn't been set out.

And of course that's not accidental. As another floor speaker said, "when new popular ideas [like community-owned energy] start to bubble up and threaten the existing system, they get squashed."

The vested interests only have to look to Germany, where the monoliths are tottering, to see the risks to them, even while the rest of the world sees the benefits of the Energiewende.

But there is a great story to be told here, a story that should be strong enough to overcome the obstacles. And there is progress.

Is China's government more responsive to democratic pressure that the UK's?

It's only now that the urgency of tackling air pollution - and ending the tens of thousands of premature deaths it causes - is leading to a broader understanding of the need to shift away from private cars to public transport, with the added benefits in reducing congestion, improving productivity and linking up communities.

Globally, that's a powerful driver of action that cuts the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. Particularly in China - which is handy really, to see democratic pressure having an impact in a country that doesn't make any claim to being a democracy.

For of course, in the discussion we soon ran up against the broader problems of our politics in Britain - the failures of what can barely be called a democracy, in which 24% of eligible voters chose a government that has 100% of power, in which there's no structural answer to the illegitimacy of a government elected on a manifesto that no longer has any relevance, since it assumed continued membership of the European Union.

That was one reason why the proposition I put - that to get a people-centred energy policy, as with so many other desirable outcomes - we need electoral reform, a fair voting system that allows community to take back control.

Of course it will take more than that: our discussion focused on the need for decentralised control over energy systems - city regions, bioregions, whatever term is used what's needed are decisions suitable to local conditions, not delivered from far-away Westminster.

The changes needed are large: the transformation of our energy system from fossil fuels to low carbon within a generation is only a subset of the broader changes we need to make to our economies and society.

But that's a message of hope, not despair ...

Trashing the planet, as we have increasingly done in the past few decades, hasn't delivered a secure, stable, productive economy and society. Nor has it given voters the security and freedom from fear that they increasingly crave.

I suggested, tongue in cheek, to the collection of suited academics in front of me that they might like to pick up placards and march down Whitehall. They weren't quite up for that, but they are understanding that they can't regard politics as someone else's business. That they have to engage, get involved, argue their corner.

They're finding, as so many others are, that if you don't make politics something you do, then it's something that gets done to you - by the vested interests and the 1%. We can't keep electing the wrong people and hope they'll do the right thing, with energy or anything else. It's time for us all to get political! 



Natalie Bennett is a journalist and policy analyst specialising in energy, climate and other environmental topics. She is also the former leader of the Green Party of England & Wales.

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