Last words from Ed Miliband
In the months since I first posted on this blog a great deal has happened in the fight against climate change. Perhaps the most important event was the UN conference in Copenhagen. The conference didn’t produce everything we wanted, and in particular it didn’t deliver a track to a legal treaty. But it did produce a global agreement on climate change that includes the US and China for the first time. The world has made an irreversible commitment to going low carbon.
What does that mean for the English countryside? Reading the comments on the blog it is clear that there is a mixture of optimism and concern.
There is optimism because by getting global emissions under control we can limit the damage that would be done to our landscapes and wildlife. The international action on emissions that is now under way is vital if we want to protect traditional landscapes.
Wind farms and the countryside
But there is concern that new low carbon infrastructure, and in particular windfarms, will change the environment people live in and use. It was interesting to read posts from people who saw windfarms as beautiful, but it is very clear that for many other people they pose a significant risk to areas they have come to love.
The key question for me is not about whether we need windfarms, but where they should be. The challenge of climate change is so large that by 2050 our electricity system needs to be almost entirely carbon free. That is why we are supporting the development of a range of renewable technologies including solar power, wave power and wind turbines located out at sea. But we cannot achieve the change we need if we rule out one of the best developed clean energy technologies: onshore wind.
So we need to make sure we put windfarms in the right places. We need to make sure people have a say in how those decisions are made. And I think we should do more to ensure local people can benefit from the windfarms that are built.
Planning for people and the environment
There is progress on all these fronts. The new Infrastructure Planning Commission is up and running and in the next few months will take decision making on large wind farms out of the hands of politicians and strengthen the consultation process. It will ensure decision making is in the national interest, including our interest in protecting our countryside.
For smaller windfarms and other renewables, we are updating the Planning Policy Statement that guides local planning authority decisions (you can click here to take part in the consultation).
And from 1st April, the feed-in-tariff system will make it much easier for local communities to earn money from small renewable electricity projects, including small wind farms that they build in their area.
I know this won’t be enough for people who want to say a blanket ‘no’ to wind farms, but I hope it will go some way to meeting the concerns of people who want to know that everything is being done to make sure we maximise the benefit from wind farms and minimise the disadvantages.
Away from wind energy, there was also a point made in the comments about the importance of helping energy efficiency at home. That is a really important point because saving energy is the easiest way to save carbon and it also provides an immediate benefit through lower bills. Earlier this month we set out plans to provide more support for people, including ways to pay for the installation of energy saving measures out of savings in energy bills rather than upfront. We expect around 7 million homes to have eco-makeovers by 2020.
Population growth and climate change
Someone also raised the issue of population growth and climate change. This is an issue that comes up a lot but the truth is that it is economic growth not population growth that is the main reason why emissions are rising. If you look at the pattern of emissions growth around the world, most of the nations with the highest population growth rates had low growth rates for carbon dioxide emissions.
The core issue is that at the moment economic development very often brings new high carbon power stations, high carbon vehicles and high carbon lifestyles. The challenge is to break that link so we can all enjoy the benefits of economic growth and development without the dangers of unconstrained climate change. That is why clean energy is so important around the world, as well as at home.
The final point I want to make is about the importance of people engaging in these issues, whatever side of the renewables debate they are on. The shift to low carbon requires a big transition in our country and it is important that that is made on the basis of broad public engagement and discussion. It can’t be left just to politicians or businesses or even the staff of NGOs. The commitment of CPRE members to the countryside is a powerful force in the debate and one I am sure will continue to be so long into the future.