Colin Challen MP “Too little, too late”

ISBN 9780956037008. “Too Little, Too Late – the politics of climate change” by Colin Challen MP was published by Picnic Publishing in 2009. This book has 256 pages including Prologue, Introduction seven chapters, Epilogue, Bibliography, Appendix and Index. Colin didn’t stand for re-election to his Morley and Rothwell in the 2010 British Elections. I checked his voting record at “theyworkforyou.com” and found a certain ambiguity on his political stand across a variety of issues. He may well have been the most right-on Climate Change Campaigner in Parliament that you have never heard of. His name was new to me. Funny story – we bought the review copy off the second hand Amazon marketplace and the copy arrived in as-new state – it didn’t look like it had even been thumbed through. However, upon opening the cover we found the following handwritten on the title page: ” To Chris, I hope you don’t find this too depressing! Colin” We’ll never know if this has been genuinely signed by the author but the recipient of this gift may not have been impressed enough to read it. An initial glance through might show why. It starts with what must be the most boring anecdote about Climate Change negotiations ever. The next few chapters, up to around page 100, deal with the machinations of the Conference of the Parties and many a reader might put this book down early on.

This would be a mistake as it is worth bearing with it. It does get better – we promise. Challen’s book covers a brief period of history around 2007 (the afore-mentioned COP at Bali) through to 2009. There is a refreshing perspective here for the modern historian. Challen points out the irony of the WTO conference in Hong Kong and the UNFCCC conference in Montreal which proceeded together and “blithely ignored each other”. Challen is a frustrated man because he clearly sees the link between the hard reality of the modern economy and the fantasy non-action on Climate Change. One is taken very seriously as a panacea whilst the other is mired in pointless political gesturing. Everyone wants to be seen to do something but nothing ever happens. Challen draws a parallel with the appeasers of Hitler in the 1930’s. He points to our denial phase, appeasement, phoney war and total war. Guess where we are. Challen moves on to champion contraction and convergence. He shows how the Realpolitik demand that the science be ignored in favour of, what he describes as, “wriggle room” where the lives of Africans are valued as being less than those of Americans. He barely hides his contempt.

Whilst the content of UNFCCC talks may not be exciting it is towards the middle of the book that the interest level rises. Challen starts to give us an insight into the workings of the Blair/Brown Government. So Challen moves on to describe the creation of carbon markets. The author’s writing in this area is most telling – indeed – eye-opening. Skip to page 127 if you want to know the realities as to why Carbon Markets were created and how they ended up so distorting the political system around themselves that they probably ended up doing more harm than good.

Peak Oil does get a look-in here and there too but this is not Challen’s primary area of concern – although he recognises the reality and how it links to Climate Change. The analysis of the relationship between efficiency and economic growth is something that can be read in any one of a dozen good books these days but it was refreshing to see this come from a former Parliamentarian. Later on (around page 163) Challen launches himself into the Nuclear debate with a thorough run-down of the relative economics over the lifetimes of the plants. He also compares the carbon-footprints. All around a great read. Just glance through the section on “opportunity cost” on page 170. Challen digs out a great quote from Vincent de Rivaz, Chief Executive of EDF who said “If you provide incentives for renewables … that will displace the incentives built into the carbon market. In effect, carbon gets cheaper. And if carbon gets cheaper, you depress the returns for all the other low-carbon technologies”. Challen goes onto write (page 172) “the only surprise is that as yet Whitehall has not yet learnt quite how to master this brand of chutzpah”.

The author himself (if you believe this) is largely responsible for the Blair Government pumping an extra £6 million into the Low Carbon Building Program grant system for Microgeneration. What is most telling about this section of the book (around page 125 onwards) is Challen’s analysis of the way that the DTI (now DBERR) reacted proceeded to ration this money out in such small chunks that it never actually got spent. In Challen’s eyes this was typical of the Whitehall foot-dragging on micro-renewables. His belief was that the Civil Service was systematically and institutionally aligned to ONLY favour big box solutions: big coal and big nuclear. Micro-renewables actually became a “threat” to the EU ETS because microgeneration and efficiency would undercut the price of carbon and the City-traders would not find the market so profitable. Challen concluded that reducing emissions was never the purpose of the EU ETS. Its true function was to capture a piece of the action for the City of London and keep it there. Challen’s exasperation is evident in his sarcasm: “The UK ETS was essentially an R&D scheme on behalf of the City, a business sector clearly in need of more state aid than the tiny, hard pressed UK renewable energy sector” (page 128). Quite. The Whitehall targets showed a “fear of taking on a burden rather than seeking an opportunity” (page 139) – Challen goes onto draw another historical comparison with the Victorian Railway building boom in 1844 which occurred in the absence of any public subsidy. The sector had, at one point attracted expansion plans that would have required capital equivalent to one-and-a-half time the country’s GNP.

By page 141 we see how a future Labour Party Leader, one Ed Miliband, would ride to the rescue with the Feed In Tariff scheme. As recent history has shown us much of the teeth given the FiTs was subsequently stolen by the new Conservative/Democrat Coalition in 2011. The funding for this scheme has been a long source of controversy as it was intended to be cross-subsidised by fossil fuel levies raised by the utility companies. Even such an income-neutral scheme was jealously squashed by the Treasury regardless of the fact that the money was never intended to flow through their coffers in the first place. This latter information came to late for Challen’s book but it is independent verification of his point of view.

Towards the end of the book Challen picks up the case for domestic tradable quotas (DTQ) and personal carbon allowances (PCA). Although taken seriously by Ed Miliband it was knocked on the head by the Treasury as being too expensive. One might suspect a political trade-off in DECC with Miliband getting his FiT but giving up on DTQs. On page 191 Challen observes the fundamental truth: “it also says much about the chances of getting anything past those who wish to control not only revenue and expenditure but the foundations of the tax base. PCAs would do very little for the Treasury’s coffers, they would be separate from the Treasury’s revenue streams. They are not a flexible fiscal instrument that can be used to help balance the budget. In a similar way, the Treasury opposes the principle of hypothecating taxation because it reduces their flexibility.” And then on page 192 this “All these arguments have been rehearsed ad nausea in the light of the 2007/2008 economic downturn, and the result has an almost inevitable ring to it – we’ll pay for this green stuff, but later please.” Most readers will feel pretty angry by this stage of the book. It seems to be that we don’t need to bring down capitalism to fight Climate Change – simply a change in Whitehall might be enough! On page 195 we learn that the setup costs for PCA may have been up to £2billion with up to £2 billion required annually to run it. Seems a lot until Challen points out that £215 million had been earmarked to pump prime the UK ETS. PCAs would reduce our Carbon Footprints whereas the ETS was questionable.

In the end Challen recognises the need to change our entire economic model if PCAs were to stand a chance. In what sounds like an endorsement of the Transition Town model we get this on page 196: “Surely we should look for a synergy between campaigns to save post offices and improve public transport with the campaign for PCAs, rather than positing PCAs on the present car-dependent model?” Towards the end of this book Challen launches into the pre-election challenge that seems to have occupied him the most before he left Parliament – that is the goal of a long-standing and cross-party Parliamentary support mechanism for Climate Change action. By page 225 this had turned into a battle between two Conservatives: John Gummer MP who chaired the Conservative Party’s Quality of Life Commission (directly responsible for getting Zach Goldsmith into Government) and John Redwood MP: “How they reconcile their differences will be indicative of whether ‘science’ will ever be a politically acceptable master”. Challen’s book sets the scene for the return of the Conservatives to power in 2010 and illustrates the battle between the left and right inside the party. In the end it falls down to Party “tribalism”. One thinks that no matter who wins elections the Government is always in charge. This Government is an entrenched Whitehall apparatus. Recommended.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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