Energy minister Claire Perry apologised to international observers after being repeatedly interrupted by four climate protesters during an event in which she announced the UK had formally requested to host the climate talks in 2020.
Speaking during a side event at this year’s climate summit in Katowice, Perry was forced to stop speaking after activists openly challenged her over the UK’s fracking policy.
The event was organised by the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a coalition of countries, regions, cities and businesses committed to phase-out coal in their energy mix, launched by the UK and Canada last year.
“What do you say to those people that you have silenced,” asked Extinction Rebellion activist Liam Geary Baulch, referring to strong anti-fracking opposition in Lancashire, where fracking activities were suspended earlier this week following the largest tremor being recorded since the process started.
Minutes later, another protester interrupted Perry, demanding a “genuine just transition to renewables”.
“There is a view that with our current technology we can’t run an energy system that is 100 percent renewable. We just can’t,” Perry responded.
“You should be really proud as a UK citizen when you look at what our country has done over the last 20 years. No other country decarbonised faster per units of GDP than the UK.”
“If the world moved away from coal and used gas, emissions would drop very substantially and that is the process to phase-out coal,” she added.
Four young people from the UK who disrupted the event told DeSmog UK they had planned to engage with Perry during a Q&A session at the end of the event but decided to interrupt the minister when the panel announced there would not be any time for questions.
“The event today was greenwash theatre” said Naomi Kreitman, adding the UK government recently cut subsidies for solar and blocked the development of the onshore wind sector “while pumping more money into fossil fuel infrastructure”.
“Gas is just another fossil fuel and it needs to stay in the ground. The scientific consensus is clear, there is no space for more fossil fuel infrastructure in a 1.5 degree world,” she said.
Speaking to reporters following the event, Perry admitted that she had been “embarrassed” about the interruptions. “A couple of interruption and hecklings are fine, I am used to that,” she said. “But I felt others were a little surprised in the room.”
Perry said she “absolutely admired the passion” of the young people involved. “All of us understand that this has become a fundamental question and not just among young people. You always want people to go further and faster but I was trying to make the point that we have a really good track record in the UK,” she added.
Perry said she had invited the four campaigners for a meeting.
Decarbonising the economy
The protesters’ interventions heavily disrupted the UK’s government presentation of its vision for a low-emissions society and the path to a just transition.
A short video praising the UK’s “transition blueprint” from coal to the development of an offshore wind sector was shown to a packed room of country officials, delegates and journalists.
Perry also praised the Drax Group, which runs the UK’s largest single coal power station in North Yorkshire, for the company’s innovations with biomass and carbon capture and storage.
“We will be off coal completely by 2025. If the market doesn't deliver, I will legislate to do so,” Perry pledged, adding that “sometimes you have to legislate as well as rely on market signals”.
The event was also the occasion for the UK to announce £175 million of funding to develop new technologies which will help clean carbon-intensive industries such as steel, ceramics, cement, chemicals, paper and glass.
“I’m launching a mission to create the world’s first ‘net-zero’ carbon cluster by 2040,” Perry said.
There were more announcements as Perry official confirmed the UK’s “strong interest” to host the COP26 climate talks in 2020.
“We don’t want to poach something other countries don’t want to give up. We want this to be an entirely consensual process,” she added.
In a statement, WWF said it welcomed the UK’s bid to host the climate conference, adding “it’s an opportunity for the UK to lead the way on climate change at a time when the need for action has never been starker”.
Despite Theresa May’s vulnerable position at home, Perry reaffirmed the UK government’s commitment to tackling climate change. “Despite the 24-hour political indulgence in the UK, I’m here,” she said. “We are completely convinced across government that clean growth is part of a our post-Brexit place in the world.”
Alliance without compliance
UK campaigners were not the only ones to disrupt the Powering Past Coal Alliance.
Aaron Pedrosa, a campaigner from the political coalition Sanlakas in the Philippines, stood up during the event and warned that although the alliance was “a breadth of fresh air”, it had to “go beyond rhetoric and pursue binding commitments to phase out coal”.
Pedrosa’s comments came hours after the Irish Times revealed that the subsidiary of the Irish state-owned energy company ESB signed a 10-year-contract to provide engineering and project-management services for a new 1,200 megawatts coal-fired power plant in the Philippines.
Ireland signed up to the Powering Past Coal Alliance earlier this year, pledging to phase out coal.
Pedrosa said: “This company will be profiting from emissions being made in the Philippines. Can the alliance make binding commitments and compel its members to say no more?”
Pedrosa called on the alliance to raise the issue with its constituency and “keep its members in tow”, calling on the Irish Government to cancel the contract with MGen, a Phillipines coal company.
Colin O’Hehir, from the Irish Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, told DeSmog UK that the department would investigate the matter and later make a formal response.
Image credit: Chloe Farand