Policy, not protesters, should be on trial

Two hundred years ago coal was the lifeblood of a revolution that transformed the world, lifting people from poverty by powering new technology with energy captured from the sun, stored for hundreds of millions of years in fossilised plant remains and then released in combustion.

In recent years, we have become aware of a downside, however: the rapid accumulation of higher and higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is in large part being caused by coal burning, is changing the climate and causing massive economic costs. It is quite amazing, therefore, that a British government, which claims a leading role in the fight against climate change, is backing the construction of new coal-fired power stations.

The Stern Review on climate change, commissioned by Gordon Brown, couldn't have been clearer in its conclusion that we need to take action now to avoid massive climate change-driven economic damages later on, which will fall on our children and cause disproportionate impacts on the world's poorest people. In relation to climate change, it seems therefore that social justice is for policy makers an immediate and local concept – people in the future and far away simply don't count.

If they did, then new coal plants would not be on the agenda. By accepting proposals for new coal-fired power stations, the UK government not only sends a signal to industry here that it is not serious about action to cut emissions, but has also undermined its own credibility in persuading other countries to embrace a new international climate change regime.

Under these circumstances it is all the more significant that a jury considering charges of criminal damage at Maidstone crown courtacquitted six Greenpeace activists on Wednesday after they sought to shut down Kingsnorth power station in Kent: a coal-fired power station that could soon be the site of a new coal plant, if proposals from energy firm E.ON UK are backed by ministers.

The Greenpeace campaigners claimed their action had a lawful basis, because their intention was to help avoid the costs and damages that would arise from future climate changes. That seems to me utterly consistent with the policy implications of the Stern Review, and I hope that Gordon Brown will signal his support for the protesters, while at the same time telling the cocky executives at E.ON UK that the days when companies could make applications to build unabated coal stations are finished, and that they need to get out of that technology and into cleaner power sources, especially renewables.

The simple realty we face is that we cannot keep climate changes at levels we can cope with, while at the same time continuing to use conventional coal technologies to meet our power needs. While policy makers and the planning process still seem unable to grasp this inconvenient truth, the jury in Maidstone, in considering the facts of the matter, could reach no other conclusion.

We are approaching the brink of climate changes that could wreck our civilisations, create humanitarian disasters on a scale never before seen, provoke a mass extinction and, according to Lord Stern, cause costs with a bigger economic impact than both world wars and the great depression combined. The jury leaned that coal is the biggest threat and handed down the only verdict they reasonably could. 

I don't think it is Greenpeace that should have been on trial, but Labour energy policy and the blind profit-driven business strategies of companies like E.ON UK.

Originally published by The Guardian.