Following our interviews with climate spokespeople in the run-up to the General Election this is the first in our series of interviews with Labour’s leadership hopefuls focusing on their energy and climate agenda. The series is intended to highlight the key issues in the debate around energy and climate in the UK.
There is certainly something refreshing about Jeremy Corbyn — at least by the standards of political interviews.
Sitting somewhat awkwardly below a rapidly-assembled poster with the word ‘leader’ hovering above his head, the Labour MP for Islington North cuts a bemused figure.
“My time is no longer my own,” he says apologetically after our interview is cut short by his friendly but fretful press officer.
Watch the extended interview above (the featured video is only 30 seconds.)
Whilst some politicians fail to answer questions, with Jeremy it’s more that the question gets lost amidst a blizzard of detail, some of it not especially relevant. And this isn’t even meant to be one of his pet subjects.
“My mum and dad were both scientists in various ways,” he says explaining how he came to learn about climate change as early as the 1970s.
“I’ve been involved in opposing the large road building programmes in Britain in favour of rail […] I’ve supported measures to improve energy efficiency,” he says — before running through how his local council has cut bills through home insulation schemes.
“I would want the public ownership of the gas and the national grid.”
“The least efficient are the private rented sector which is lacking sufficient regulation to bring all this about,” he adds.
Solar panels on every home
To Corbyn, a fundamental tool to enabling action on climate change is bringing things back under public control.
“The post-war model of energy supplies in Britain was to bring into national public ownership all the electricity generation and all the gas generation […] these were then privatised under Margaret Thatcher’s government and since then we’ve had a rather strange kind of energy market.”
“I would want the public ownership of the gas and the national grid,” he asserts before suggesting that nationalising power supply may prove more tricky.
For large power stations “it would be fairly straightforward to bring that into public ownership,” but Corbyn is keen on a distributed model for power generation with solar panels on every new home and warehouse (in preference to fields).
“I would personally wish that the Big Six were under public ownership, or public control in some form,”
“It’s simply not credible or possible to make that into a mass public corporation… we also want to encourage municipal and cooperative developments of energy, essentially the more locally you generate electricity the more efficient it is.”
He runs into the same quandary when it comes to the companies we buy our gas and electricity from.
“I would personally wish that the Big Six were under public ownership, or public control in some form,” he says, “but I don’t want to take into public ownership every last local facility because it’s just not efficient”.
The general picture Corbyn paints is fairly clear: nationalise the big stuff, promote energy efficiency, and decentralise power.
Jeremy Corbyn on ‘socialising our energy supply’ pic.twitter.com/j4Rnqo3u8g
— Zachary Davies Boren (@zdboren) August 7, 2015
The coal plants, the pipes, the wires, even the biggest energy companies would, somehow or other, come under state control or ownership. “It seems to me that having the fundamentals of the national grid and future energy supplies and security of energy supplies in public ownership is a good thing.”
“I get this argument put to me quite often, that it [clean energy] hits the poorest hardest. Well it doesn’t have to.”
“You can do it by majority shareholding, you can do it by increased share sales which are then bought by the government in order to give a controlling interest. I’m not looking at throwing money away but I am looking at the question of public control and how it’s achieved.”
“Does it cost? Yes. Is there a return? Yes. Because quite clearly any profits made then go to the public, rather than shareholders.”
Not everyone would accept that distinction. Sitting in a cramped union office opposite Euston station, an eclectic range of dated socialist posters moved delicately out of shot, it would be easy to see Corbyn as a throw-back — all nationalisation and 1980’s style state-socialism. But that would be a misleading simplification.
Attacking government policy he says “we discourage the growth of self-generation of electricity through solar and it seems we’re still besotted with the idea that the most important thing is the big scheme, whereas in fact it’s a holistic approach [we need] which is about basically everybody using less,” and decentralised, locally owned generation.
In addition to a big push for solar (he also supports onshore wind) he wants regulations which enforce high standards of insulation and “exacting standards on all things that use electricity, be they cars, electrical appliances or anything else”.
But insultation and clean energy require investment up front. The government’s climate advisors have suggested such measures could account for around £175 of bills by 2030 and recent research by the left-leaning IPPR think tank suggested the cost of clean energy on bills falls disproportionately on the poorest.
“I get this argument put to me quite often, that it hits the poorest hardest. Well it doesn’t have to. It depends how the pricing mechanism works […] in any event one can have a cap on prices to ensure that doesn’t happen,” he says.
And there is definitely one ‘big scheme’ idea where he feels savings could be made. “I think we’ve been misled about the true costs of nuclear power generation.”
“The safety issue of any nuclear power stations – what’s happened in Japan – is obvious for all to see […] and the issue nobody has an answer to is the question of nuclear waste”. He opposes any new nuclear power plants.
Corbyn calls for end of the capacity market ‘which subsidises coal, gas and nuclear at greater expense’ pic.twitter.com/6N6LRs8SuX
— Zachary Davies Boren (@zdboren) August 7, 2015
But if he isn’t straightforwardly statist it would equally be a mistake to paint him as simply a green evangelist of small scale renewable energy.
In the 1980’s Jeremy was a fierce advocate of the UK’s coal industry and jobs for the miners — and it’s not something he has entirely let go of.
“The last deep mine coal mines in South Wales have gone but it’s quite possible that in future years coal prices will start to go up again around the world and maybe they’ll be a case for what is actually very high quality coal, particularly in South Wales, being mined again.”
That’s probably why Jeremy is a supporter of carbon capture and storage for coal plants — a technology he has backed in Parliament and which could charitably be described as yet to be proven at a commercial scale.
“It’s complicated. At one level it looks very expensive but the advantages also look quite attractive,” he suggests.
His view of oil extraction is also nuanced.
He supported the creation of a sanctuary in the Antarctic to prevent mining and oil drilling and now opposes fracking in the UK. He didn’t oppose North Sea drilling directly though — simply suggesting there was no need for it.
And when it comes to global action to limit emissions Corbyn also stands out from the much of the rest of the left-leaning ‘green blob’.
He has spoken in favour of ‘global regulation’ to prevent the export of carbon and seems sceptical of the current framing of global talks which puts the burden heavily on developed nations — a notion many on the left support.
“There was an acceptance that there should be a different pace of approach towards emissions so that so-called developing countries such as India and China had less exacting standards placed upon them than European countries.”
I got the impression that — as with the EU — Jeremy would adopt a pretty aggressive negotiating position on international climate targets. As with the EU though what is less clear is what would happen if he doesn’t get what he wants.
Many politicians are notorious for not telling you what they want, instead answering a question about what they want with what they think is politically or economically possible.
Much like the popular leaders of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain part of the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn is that he doesn’t do that — quite the opposite.
‘The right thing to do’
But as with those movements when it comes to prioritising his ambitions he is harder to pin down.
The nationalisation of firms worth hundreds of millions could make Jeremy’s flagship pledge to end tuition fees look relatively modest but he believes it can done, at the same time as spending large sums on clean energy. And hundreds of thousands of solar panels can be installed at the same time as rolling out carbon capture and storage on coal.
Corbyn’s belief in his solutions is based on principle and so unwavering.
When I pushed him to say if nationalisation was more of a long-term ambition he brushed off the notion. “It means the government – which is ultimately responsible for these things – takes a direct responsibility for it. That seems to me the right thing to do.”
And he doesn’t duck the detail on how his promises might be delivered. But if, like Greece’s Syriza, a Corbyn government were forced to choose between his priorities it’s hard to know which he could ultimately deliver.
Energydesk is editorially independent of Greenpeace