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Lib Dem NOTES from Brussels by Chris Davies MEP

by johnpotter on 5 October, 2012

3 October 2012

How did Lib Dem party conference appear to you? The media coverage seemed reasonable to me but I thought my daughter’s (20) comments were interesting: “Dad, you know I don’t take THAT much interest but the TV and radio aren’t reporting any of the ideas being discussed, they just want to know whether Nick Clegg will still be leader at the next election. It’s pathetic”.

News coverage of politics is not dissimilar to coverage of football. The ideas hardly get a mention. It’s who’s in, what they are being paid, and who’s about to get the sack that seizes the headlines.

Chris Davies MEP

Inside The Parliamentary Parties

At the conference there’s a daily meeting of our parliamentarians to discuss what’s on the agenda and what should be the approach. You never know who is going to turn up, but it’s the only time that MPs and MEPs, Peers and MSPs, Welsh AMs and London Assembly members mingle together. I sometimes have problems recognising all the faces.

The best attended meeting was chaired by Commons Chief Whip Alastair Carmichael, with Nick Clegg in attendance and strongly defending the Government’s economic policies. It’s difficult to complain too much about cuts when you are reminded just how much extra we are borrowing every day still, supporting many services only by incurring debts that keep getting bigger. No wonder that Labour’s Ed Balls hasn’t got anything of substance to say about how he would be different. He got us into this financial mess and he knows full well how hard it is to get out of it.

Far from criticism of Nick from his parliamentary colleagues there was a strong sense of bonding within the Lib Dem ‘family’ – helped by good humoured repartee at the expense of Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell. The firm impression conveyed by the Ministers present was that they are working to uphold Lib Dem values and often involved in bloody scraps with Coalition ‘partners’ who take a very different approach. Criticism is easy, but I’m not convinced that many of us would do a better job if we were in their shoes.

The mood at this particular meeting was broken by my colleague, London MEP Sarah Ludford, who spoke strongly against the “secret courts” Bill despite the efforts made by Lib Dem Ministers to improve it. She found herself on the winning side in the conference debate that followed, defeating the leadership. Mind you, that defeat was probably not wholly unwelcome. It strengthens Nick’s hand and allows him to insist that more changes must be made if it is to be acceptable to Lib Dem MPs.

Medically Assisted Dying

By a large majority the conference supported the motion I moved calling for people who are suffering unendurably with no hope of recovery to be able to seek help medical help to die. The 1.5 hour debate was riveting, with doctors speaking on both sides and many people with personal experience of the last days of their loved ones contributing. (Needless to say it got no coverage in the national media). Copies of my pamphlet, ‘Our Right to Die – lessons for Britain from the European experience’, can be obtained from my website: chrisdaviesmep.org.uk

To Frack, Or Not To Frack?

I met Fylde residents at Conference who are campaigning against the potential development of shale gas in their area. So long as the UK uses gas, which will be for many decades to come, I have no more objection in principle to getting it from domestic sources than I would have been to the development of the coal mines that fuelled our industrial revolution. But there are environmental concerns that must be fully addressed.

The latest study for the European Commission expresses concern about the possible threat to water supplies both from the use of chemicals in the fracking process and from the discharge of waste water, (though interestingly, given the publicity attached to this, it does not regard possible seismic activity as a genuine problem). I shall pursue the issue of environmental controls in Brussels.

China And Climate Change

A 4-hour meeting with China’s climate change negotiating team left me feeling that our work in Europe is very insignificant. (At the request of the Chinese the meeting took place in Venice – it’s a hard job but someone has to do it!) These were the ‘good guys’ when it comes to taking action to curb global warming, but they confirmed that China is completing a new coal-fired power station (800MW) every week, has no idea when its CO2 emissions will stop rising, and despite huge investment in wind power, hydro-electric and nuclear power expects to get only 15% of its energy from low carbon sources by 2030. Behind China lies India, S. E. Asia, Africa and the rest of the developing world.

The EU is now responsible for only 10% of global CO2 emissions. We have historic responsibilities for starting the problem, we need to take a lead in trying to combat it, and we should try and secure economic advantages from developing new technologies, but without international action on a scale not yet being considered our fine talk about beating global warming amounts to very little.

What Future For Gaza?

A UN report says that the population of Gaza will grow from 1.6 million to 2.1 million within eight years. So long as this 25-mile strip of land is besieged by Israel the prospects for its people are grim, but the economic restrictions render the environmental problems even worse. Untreated sewage is pouring into the sea. Fresh water supplies are under threat. The aquifer that supplies Gaza’s water is severely depleted and increasingly polluted. The UN predicts that it will be unusable within four years, infiltrated by seawater with recovery almost impossible. What then?

Crunch Time For CCS

More than five years have passed since EU Prime Ministers agreed that up to 12 carbon capture and storage demonstration projects should be in operation by 2015, but not a single project has yet been given the all-clear. A deadline for the allocation of EU funds (the ‘NER300’*) has been set for the end of October and if decisions are not reached by then Europe will send out a signal to the world that it has given up on CCS.

This will not be because an alternative to the technology has been found. Coal and gas will be with us as energy sources for many, many decades to come and if their CO2
emissions are not pumped into rock deep underground they will continue to be released into the atmosphere. There is no option but CCS for dealing with emissions from major industrial plants. The International Energy claims that CCS must provide 20% of the global CO2 reductions needed to be achieved by 2050.

Demonstration on a large scale is needed to reduce the costs and raise the efficiencies. If the price attached to the release of CO2 is high then CCS may offer financial advantages, but current carbon prices are far, far too low to support its development without large subsidy. What’s worse, the value of the EU financial support is also dependent upon the price of CO2; it amounts now to just €300m per project.

From a personal point of view all this is hard for me. I am recognised as being the person responsible for putting in place the ‘NER300’ funding mechanism intended to provide EU financial support. At the time in 2008 it was a great achievement, and expected to be worth €6-9 billion, but now its value is estimated at just €2.2 billion.

CCS schemes have fallen by the wayside across Europe, many delayed indefinitely. In some cases arrangements for underground storage have not been agreed, in other cases the problem is financial or political. It seems that the public can live with an explosive gas like methane beneath their feet but not an inert one like CO2.

All eyes now rest on the UK and the Netherlands. Before the end of this month the European Commission requires government confirmation that it will provide funding for projects at Don Valley, Peterhead or Drax. Energy Secretary Ed Davey is firmly committed to CCS development. Whether he can overcome institutional delays and Treasury resistance in time to meet the deadline is quite another matter. My fingers are tightly crossed.

Oh, by the way, ‘NER300′ is shorthand for “the money from the sale of 300 million carbon allowances from the New Entrants’ Reserve of the EU Emissions Trading System”. But you probably didn’t need to know that!

Chris Davies MEP

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