Congratulations from Canada to the Kingsnorth Six! If they can do it – so can we.
Kingsnorth climbdown is the British climate movement’s biggest victory
Little did I know, as I climbed the smokestack at Kingsnorth, that two years later we’d be celebrating this breakthrough
Greenpeace activists stand at the top of the Kingsnorth power plant. Photograph: Greenpeace
They say good things come in threes.
On Monday, we learned that four of the world’s largest cattle companies are finally going to stop funding Amazon deforestation. Tuesday saw the Tories promise to put their anti-third runway position in their election manifesto, meaning – if the polls are to be believed – that Heathrow expansion is dead in the water. And then, last night, the extraordinary news that plans for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth have been shelved.
I was sidling out of the Greenpeace office at 6.30pm yesterday evening when a friend from Climate Camp phoned to ask if I’d heard the rumours that the energy company E.ON had thrown in the towel. A few frantic calls revealed the utility’s vice-president had made a presentation in Hamburg detailing E.ON’s latest plans, and that for at least the next two years his company would not build a new plant at Kingsnorth.
Powerpoint presentations in German rarely make headline news here in the UK, but this one was different. We called everyone we knew in an attempt to verify the rumours and then, suddenly, an unsolicited email landed in our inbox from a senior E.ON official. "We can confirm …" Astonished eyes scanned the text and then, as the significance of the words dawned, a huge cry went up. "Jeez, we might … we might have actually won!"
Exactly two years ago today, I was one of five people climbing the smokestack at Kingsnorth in an attempt to shut it down for a day and draw attention to plans to build a new plant on the site – the first new coal-fired power station in Britain for three decades. At that point, the then-energy secretary John Hutton was just weeks away from permitting the plant, while internal Whitehall documents revealed that contractors were preparing to begin construction the following summer, in 2008. Little did we know, as we dragged ourselves up 1053 rungs of a ladder, that a year later we’d be acquitted by a jury which believed the plant posed more of a threat than we did, and that, a year after that, E.ON would kick plans for its new power station into the long grass.
We haven’t won yet – that only happens when government rules out all emissions from new coal – but there are now significant doubts as to whether the plant will ever be built. E.ON claimed in its email that building new coal plants is not economically viable at present, and that the drop-off in electricity demand has forced the company to delay any investment decision for a few years. You may choose to take these claims with a pinch of salt. After all, this power station was intended to operate for four decades. Any small reduction in demand this year would have little or no impact on the economics of a new coal plant that would be burning coal into the 2050s.
Any bearing the recession may have had on E.ON’s decision is more than outweighed by the huge campaign waged by groups as diverse as the World Development Movement and the Women’s Institute. Kingsnorth was, in many ways, the making of the climate movement in this country, with last year’s Climate Camp focusing huge attention on the site of the new plant (and on the police’s over-the-top response to peaceful protest). Now, that same movement can claim its most significant breakthrough to date.
In a few weeks, Ed Miliband will reveal his coal policy. We maintain that he should enforce an emissions performance standard – a limit on the amount of CO2 any power station can emit per unit of power it produces. With last night’s development, Miliband now has a golden opportunity adopt such a standard and rule out all emissions from new coal as a sign of Britain’s progress before the key UN climate talks in Copenhagen this December. The climate movement will keep pushing on coal until the government adopts the kind of policy demanded by the scientists. But if I was an executive at BP or Shell – where investment in the Canadian tar sands is a priority – I’d be extremely worried that the crosshairs might fall on me next.
• Ben Stewart is a campaigner for Greenpeace UK and was one of the "Kingsnorth Six".