MP Meg Hillier defends Heathrow voting record – and criticises government’s inaction on the climate emergency

Meg Hillier. Picture: Gary Manhine (c)

Meg Hillier. Picture: Gary Manhine (c) - Credit: Archant

MP Meg Hillier isn’t optimistic that the action that’s needed to halt global warming above 1.5 degrees – which scientists now say is needed to avert a climate catastrophe – will come to pass through legislation any time soon.

Planes land at Heathrow airport. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA

Planes land at Heathrow airport. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Brexit and the last three-and-a-half "turbulent" years of government "not getting things done" comes on top of 30 years of environmental inaction from governments "of all hues".

"I am not enough of a scientist to be confident one way or another [whether adequate action can be taken in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report] but we really have to try," Ms Hillier told the Gazette.

"If you look at the Arctic you visibly see signs of what's going on. Why is it we have sunny weather in February? That can't be just normal. It used to be freezing at every Remembrance Sunday when I was a kid, and now I don't even need a proper winter coat and that's just in my lifetime. We should have been dealing with these issues and making tough decisions 30 or 40 years ago."

Ms Hillier defends voting twice "in principle" for a third runway at Heathrow - which eco campaigners have warned would add another nine million tonnes of CO2 a year to the atmosphere and intensify the climate crisis.

"It was government policy in 2009, and I was in that government," she said.

Labour's official position on the vote in June 2018, however, was to oppose expansion.

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"I always look at the evidence. I voted to go ahead with what the Airports Commission said which was to look at expanding Heathrow," said the MP. "These were experts who looked at the need for this but I believe they need to take into consideration whether the capacity will be needed. I didn't give a blank cheque, and when more details come back I'll have to look at it again in terms of CO2 emissions. We produce less emissions through aviation in the UK than domestic boilers."

Domestic gas boilers produced 55.6million tonnes of CO2 in 2018.

Ms Hillier cites the Labour government's Decent Homes programme, which provided home insulation, as one of the most successful green projects.

"It was never thought of as a green project, but the feedback I hear from tenants is that their energy bills have reduced," she said.

Scrapping solar tariffs was a source of "frustration" for her, and she would like to see future governments invest in solar power.

As a one-time shadow energy and climate change in secretary, Ms Hillier has closely followed some of the Tory government's initiatives that have since flopped. She cites the Green Deal - which doled out subsidies to make homes more energy efficient - and "failed abysmally", with just eight people signing up in Hackney, The Green Investment Group - launched after the Climate Change Act legally obliged the UK to reduce carbon emissions by 2050 - was supposed to boost funding for green energy infrastructure, but has now been sold off to a private firm. And carbon capture and storage - which would theoretically "catch" dirty emissions from power stations and channel them under the sea bed to create fossil fuels in a million or so years - had been on the horizon, but never came to fruition. Ms Hillier thinks the technology will be vital to meet eco targets.

Chairing the Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises government expenditure, has made her "despair at the capability of any government to think long term".

"I've been picking through these very programmes and pointing out what's gone wrong with them, and it's a depressing role," she said. "So much of this is about major project planning. It's a big job to get carbon capture storage off the ground, and the danger is, here we are nearly 10 years later - that's a decade lost.

Nuclear power will be necessary to cut CO2 emissions in the short term, she believes.

"There is cross party recognition of that which might not be acceptable for XR," she said. "The reality of being in government is you have to do what's possible at the time.

"The thing I am really sorry about and I what tried to push when I was in the shadow role, is we could be innovative," she said. "We should work out to store energy. We have the battery technology for electric vehicles, but when the wind is blowing how can you store it? If we did this well we could create jobs, and export our technology ideas.

"Wouldn't it be great to have a green industrial revolution?"