The former Green Party leader talks about sustainable energy and why students have the power to create meaningful change.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a chance to chat to Natalie Bennett, the former Green Party leader from 2012 to 2016. Since stepping down as leader she has continued to campaign for sustainability and institutional change to tackle climate change and environmental issues.
Ms Bennett was drawn to York by an AxeDrax protest, an ongoing campaign against a Drax power station near Selby which has been burning wood for energy. Protesters claim that they are using more wood each year than the total wood production of Britain. “Forests are not fuel,” says Ms Bennett. “Burning wood for energy is actually about 16% less efficient than coal and produces considerable air pollution.”
She believes that the use of biomass energy will become a stranded asset: continuing to receive investment despite becoming increasingly obsolete. England is being left behind economically by continuing to invest in these inefficient energy production methods: she points to Scotland and Wales, both of which have blocked fracking and invest in wind power, as examples of what we should be achieving. “We should be focusing on energy efficiency and ensuring people are lifted out of fuel poverty.” Not being able to afford energy bills is an ongoing issue in a country where it causes deaths every year among elderly and low-income households.
Indeed, fuel has been at the heart of many campaigns across the country and most recently reached the headlines with fossil free campaigns gaining momentum. Several universities in the past month, including Edinburgh and Cardiff, have agreed to divest after prolonged student campaigning. But how far can these decisions be attributed to the actions of campaigners and how far is it due to external economic pressures?
“I think that a sign of the impact of campaigning is that universities are realising that not only is there an economic cost but also a reputational cost by continuing to allow their funds to go towards fossil fuels,” Ms Bennett says. Not only are they aware of becoming stranded assets – according to the International Energy Agency, ⅔ of fossil fuel resources need to be left untapped to avoid catastrophic climate change – but social pressure is an increasing factor. [Image source: PeopleandPlanet.org]
Community-owned energy schemes are providing alternatives to fossil fuel corporations: investing money back into the local community while ensuring greater energy efficiency. In addition, decentralised energy being generated around the country is far more resilient to unexpected power shortages, avoiding disasters like the energy shortfall after the Fukushima crisis in Japan.
There’s no doubt there are many advantages both on a local and national scale to a growth in community-owned energy, and a focus on energy efficiency has great benefits to students too (it’s not uncommon to hear people during the winter term exchanging tales of broken-boiler woes and going to bed with 15 jumpers on). But what can students do to help promote these schemes?
Ms Bennett says that the best thing to do is to work together and campaign to change the system. “Campaign with other students to make the green way the cheapest, easiest and most obvious way to do things. Fossil free campaigns, asking universities where they get their energy from, asking why there aren’t solar panels on every available roof, these all help make a difference.” She points out that not only does championing eco-friendly universities make a difference environmentally but also sends a message, such as in the case of the wind turbine at Lancaster University which has become a landmark.
I question whether the emphasis on requiring large-scale campaigns to affect change might contribute to the issue of powerlessness: individuals feeling like their actions don’t matter because they can’t single-handedly create meaningful impact. However, Ms Bennett says that we shouldn’t have such an all-or-nothing mentality: opportunities for achievable change are all around us if we look for them.
“I have a saying: politics should be something you do, not have done to you. Look around and see what you can do in your immediate environment.” It might be a little optimistic to decide to eliminate all plastic waste, but campaigning for a cafe on campus to stop using plastic cutlery is the kind of action that is achievable and meaningful. [Image source]
Public opinion holds considerable weight. It influences what businesses do and helps hold them accountable. The most recent plastic straw campaign is an example of how the tide of opinion appears to shift at once and turn its attention on one particular issue at a time. However, is this one-by-one attitude really effective? The Green Party politician argues we should look at the issues in more breadth.
She champions the Sustainable Development goals by the UN which cover a breadth of social, environmental and economic issues to ensure that progress is truly sustainable. “You have to consider the social along with the environmental. For example, if we all stopped fishing in the oceans altogether, people would starve. We need to focus on long-term sustainable goals which analyse the systems underpinning these economic models.” Increasingly, consumers are demanding more transparency and ethical practice from businesses today. However, this often goes hand-in-hand with disillusionment and mistrust in corporations and a skepticism that hampers action.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
She explains how the economic system currently facilitates damaging costs. “A £5 Primark shirt should reflect the real cost of the item.” But what is the true cost? From the child labour that went into production to the fossil fuel emissions in transporting the clothes to the UK high street shop hiring zero hours minimum wage salespeople, we are all paying the true cost in other ways. And consumers are often helpless to change anything: if a cash-strapped student needs a shirt for a job interview, they are left with little choice but to buy that £5 Primark shirt.
So what can we do?
If a student had an hour and wanted to make a meaningful difference, what should they do? “Do something political: research an issue and write a blog post about it. Arrange a meeting at the university to discuss sustainability on campus.” And if the student had a day? “Organise a People & Planet stall in the town centre. Go and join their activities for a day, there’s so much happening around you.”
The conversation turns to her career, first as a journalist and then as a politician. How much impact does she feel she made as a journalist during her career in the Bangkok Post and the Guardian? “You have power as a journalist to highlight particular issues you feel strongly about. But seeing the same issues come around again and again can make you cynical. I always knew one day I wanted to get out of reporting the news and instead change the news.”
So what’s she been up to since stepping down as Green party leader? As party candidate for Sheffield she’s been involved with another campaign, this time to prevent 17,000 trees being cut down in the city after a private finance initiative contract was signed.
She calls the contract an example of a neoliberal Thatcherite principle that has failed. “If public services and public spaces are run for private profit then healthy trees get cut down. It’s a disastrous model. Our politics should be based on two key principles: that everyone has a decent life and that we live within the limits of our one fragile planet. Privatisation has no place in that.” It’s clear many people feel the same: the controversy led to a rise in Green Party support.
So what’s next for Natalie Bennett? Brexit is at the forefront of her concerns. “The next few months are crucial if we want to stop our exit from the European Union. Our government is clearly incapable of delivering an orderly Brexit.”
She thinks reversing the decision is doable with the help of a good community campaign and a second referendum. “It’s an environmental issue too because the environmental protections of the single market are absolutely crucial and we don’t want Britain to lapse to disastrous American standards of food safety regulations.”
Ms Bennett reiterates again the importance of people getting involved in campaigns around them. Working together to fight these issues is a great way – and perhaps the only way – to create the changes we want to see in the world.