FoE panel with Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

On Friday evening, we went to a Friends of the Earth meeting in Eastleigh. The meeting was a panel session with Chris Huhne MP (MP for Eastleigh, and Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), Cllr Louise Bloom (Cabinet Member, Environment for Eastleigh Borough Council), and Andy Atkins (Executive Director, Friends of the Earth) to discuss how to reduce carbon locally. Entry was free and refreshments provided and the turnout was impressive: I counted about 120-130 people pressed into the Masonic Hall (some standing) in Eastleigh for two hours. In his introductory speech, Chris said it was the biggest turnout he’d seen at an Eastleigh meeting in years.

As the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris was the first of the panel to do his 10 minute introductory speech. He mostly focused on the importance of continuing to take climate change seriously, and how we need to work hard to reduce our carbon emissions in order to keep global warming to just 2 degrees C; if we let the global temperature increase 3-4 degrees, the next generation will have a lot of nasty things to deal with.

Overall, I was really impressed with his obvious genuine interest and passion for energy and climate change. After the introductions, the panel took questions and when one audience member asked about what happens when the wind stops blowing in the middle of the night and the wind turbines and solar panels stop working, Chris talked knowledgeably about storage technologies and facilities, and backed up Andy Atkin’s additional comments about the plans and development of a European supergrid.

When another audience member mentioned that one of the heat exchanger technologies required planning permission to install, the panellists acknowledged this and Louise pointed out that, in Eastleigh, they waive the planning fees for renewable energy technologies, then Chris announced that they would be removing that requirement, in the same way that you don’t generally need planning permission for satellite dishes. I’m not sure whether he made up his mind on the spot but had something of a ‘you heard it here first’ effect on the meeting.

Cllr Louise Bloom was also impressive and inspiring. On the way home, we agreed we wouldn’t be quite so cynical about the ‘Eastleigh, tackling climate change’ signs around the town in future. They genuinely do seem to be doing a lot as a local council, both in the community and within the council itself. For instance, they restricted the size of the general waste wheelie bins to the 120 litre bins if the household has only one or two people living in it (though they can have as big or as many recycling bins as they like). Although it’s not really possible to make the massive refuse trucks especially efficient, they have got them using the best (in green terms) fuel mix possible and they sent the drivers on courses to learn about driving more efficiently.

The council has also set up their own carbon offsetting scheme in recognition that they couldn’t cut back everything in their commitment to become carbon neutral (which they’ve just about achieved now). Services such as the refuse collection, bus services (voluntarily), and parts of the council itself all pay into the scheme. The money raised is then used to pay for things like free home insulation in local houses, rather than going to some dodgy tree-planting scheme in South America.

Louise’s approach is about influencing people locally to make changes, which she prefers over top-down government targets for everything. Eastleigh was one of the 10 councils in the 10:10 scheme and they apparently should reach their 10% reduction in energy usage by the end of the year. She also found that although the nature of their business didn’t require a lot of flying, there was enough that she implemented a rule that if you can only fly if you can’t get to your destination within 6 hours by public transport. And even then the chief executive has to give approval. That cut flights by more than 70%.

Andy Atkins also made some interesting contributions, in particular an insight into how Friends of the Earth meets with and advises the Government on environmental issues, and also on the kinds of campaigns that Friends of the Earth runs (including campaigning for what became the Climate Change Act 2008, which committed to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050). His passion is related to the link between climate change and poverty; both to the fuel-poor in the UK and to enabling people in poverty around the world to develop, recognising that that will increase their energy use and that, he said, the nations that led the industrial revolution need to lead the green industrial revolution.

Questions from the audience ranged from what to do about public buildings that always left their lights on when no one was home (write to them and keep plugging away; Chris related how he walks home from work past the Ministry of Defence buildings which do exactly that), comprehensive spending review cuts (Dept of Energy and Climate Change got the second-highest budget *increase* after the Dept for International Development; the Environment Agency had to suffer cuts though – which seemed to be an area of concern for FoE despite success in other areas of environmental issues), and when will the Government enforce having to pay for plastic bags (unlikely to pursue this for what it would get; Louise also pointed out that in Ireland, where this has happened, sales of cling film, bin liners and the like increased to compensate).

There were also quite a few questions about The Green Deal, which is a scheme about to be rolled out nationally to address the poor insulation of houses in the UK. Under the Green Deal, every house in the UK would, at some point, get wall/floor/roof insulation subsidised in some way and installed (usually after a house move when redecorating most typically takes place anyway).

So after what was a fairly last-minute decision to go, I’m glad we did. It was interesting to hear the Minister for Energy and Climate Change speak in person in his own constituency, and that he genuinely does seem to know his stuff and care about it. It was also inspiring to hear Louise’s story about what they’ve been doing in Eastleigh and how she spreads the word to other councils to help them realise they can do it too. The overall message from the meeting was that every council (local area) as well as central government needs to do their bit (though Chris was cautious about emphasising the local councils too much because he didn’t wnat to let the national government off the hook). It’s not easy, it’s not even always straightforward to assess what should be done, but it’s clear that a lot can be done and already has been done in some places.

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