Is Lord Deben UK’s Leading Climate Spokesman?

He speaks for the Climate Majority

Lord Deben, may have stepped down as head of the UK government committee on climate change (CCC), but the Brits have not heard the last of his pronouncements on the environment. The former Tory Cabinet Minister is emerging as a radical critic of the UK energy industry in general, and large-scale nuclear in particular.

In his first formal action since leaving the CCC, Deben has joined the likes of Swampy, and former Extinction rebellion spokesmen Rupert Read and Julian Thompson, in supporting the Climate Majority Project (CMP).

The new group has the same line on the climate emergency as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil –  but does not follow the same tactics.

“The whole idea is a very good one,” he tells me in a phone call.  “You put together all those people who don’t want to hold up the traffic but do put climate change  first.   If it veers off the straight and narrow I will say so publicly.”

Rather than blockading the streets, the CMP calls on individuals to do the “many smaller things” needed to reduce pollution and carbon emissions.   That, says Lord Deben, includes contacting your MP.

In a speech to eco-activists at the Glastonbury Festival last month he demanded to know who of the 200 audience had contacted their own MP about climate change within the previous 6 months. “Out of the whole lot there were only three.  Its no good moaning about these things. You must make sure that all MPs of all parties cannot go to their surgeries without hearing a clear view of what can be done.  We can all do that. You cannot ask government to do things unless you have done all the things you can do yourself.”

He cites Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, her seminal 1962 book on the dangers of pollution, as a major influence on his leadership on the environment. He is also a religious man, a Catholic who sees his faith as tightly woven with his social calling.

On the day we spoke, the former Conservative Cabinet Minister was reacting to media stories commenting on the Uxbridge by-election. A narrow Tory victory over Labour was taken as evidence the public were not behind Net Zero policies like the London-wide ban on older vehicles .

“We are in a dangerous moment. In The Times today, for example, it says ‘don’t lets frighten people about climate change’ – but you know that behind that is a desire to avoid doing anything too difficult.”

Meanwhile the first Green council in rural UK was recently elected near Deben’s farm in North Suffolk.  But “it has just said its minded to turn down a planning application for a new solar farm.  It was almost the first decision they made!”

From his vantage point of 10 years at the helm of the CCC, Deben is probably the best-informed green campaigner in Britain.  He has also turned his fire on the electricity grid which he says “is not fit for purpose.”  He had met the Chairman of National Grid the previous week and told him so.  He had been relieved to learn that National Grid has managed to get into the queue for new cables  “The US and EU have.. ordered vast quantities of cables.  We looked like being at the back of the queue,” he said.  These cables are needed to feed UK-based renewable energy into the grid. The long waiting times between new solar farms being built and their being fed into the grid may be due to the lack of cables, and “there seems to have been a breakthough on that.”  Deben also praised plans for a cable from solar farms in the Moroccan desert to the UK, calling it “a pretty basic piece of technology.”

“But I don’t think we have even begun to understand how we could encourage small groups (in the UK) to produce their own energy and run it together.

“National Grid has to gain the confidence of the public which it doesn’t have at moment.There are all sorts of reasons – but its no good using excuses – its one of the biggest failures of the past for 30 years.”

Deben praised little-known progress made by National Grid in introducing large-scale batteries for storing renewable energy.  But he was particularly critical of Britain’s nuclear industry. A couple of years earlier I had attended a small seminar where he had given the industry, a dressing down for always being behind schedule and over budget.  The assembled leaders of the UK nuclear industry and literally stared at their shoes while he delivered his tirade, but it does not appear to have made any difference.

The largest nuclear project in the UK are continuing to run behind schedule and over budget.  “These are projects which the UK voters have been promised will end our dependence on Russian oil and gas!”

“Sizewell C for example is a mistake. I don’t see how it will be funded. The private sector has rightly assessed that this is a design which has already been discarded by the French – The French have cancelled every one of their orders.  EDF has not finished the only one underway (in Finland) and the Finns have cancelled the second one.”

Hinckley B is behindhand and well over budget.   So what are we doing building a new power station on an out of date programme – in an area which is not short of employment? – unlike Sizewell  B which had local support, Hinckley is not even going to come into production until well past the time it is needed”

“I would be putting the money into SMRs and giving Rolls Royce the support  (to speed up production).  You need a developer – but they….. can be built in 9 months … instead of 12-15 years.

Deben does not oppose micro-nuclear – reactors the size of a container that could power a community of 20,000 homes.  “I am wary of saying (any specific technology) is the answer – we should be spending time and money trying to develop alternatives.

“This is not a world of either/or.  Climate technology involves “both/and.. You don’t exclude you include.  We should not discard any of these things.”

Deben was full of praise for his interim successor, climate scientist Piers Forster, who is heading the CCC while a replacement is found. The new head has to be approved by the governments of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so that will ensure its an independent person of strength.

Meanwhile he will keep campaigning,  harrying the government from his position in the House of Lords, and representing the climate majority.

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