Sostenibilità sociale e ambientale

Greenpeace UK wins energy victory

UK Government's plans for new coal-fired power stations face important challenge, following the acquittal of Greenpeace volunteers

di Spartaco Santi

British Government Ministers suffered a blow to their energy plans today as six Greenpeace UK volunteers were acquitted of criminal damage by a Crown Court jury in a case that centred on the contribution made to climate change by burning coal.

The charges arose after the six attempted to shut down the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent last year by scaling the chimney and painting the Prime Minister’s name down the side. The defendants pleaded ‘not guilty’ and relied in court on the defence of ‘lawful excuse’ – claiming they shut the power station in order to defend property of a greater value from the global impact of climate change.

Today’s acquittal is a potent challenge to the UK Government’s plans for new coal-fired power stations from jurors representing ordinary people in Britain who, after hearing the evidence, supported the right to take direct action in order to protect the climate. It stands as an example to governments everywhere and an inspiration to people world-wide that they can and should take a stand against coal fired power stations in defence of the climate.

Over five days of evidence, Maidstone Crown Court heard testimony from the world’s leading climate scientist, an Inuit leader from Greenland and the environment adviser to the UK Conservative party leader. The jury was told that Kingsnorth emits 20,000 tonnes of CO2 every day – the same amount as the 30 least-polluting countries in the world combined – and that the Government has advanced plans to build a new coal-fired power station next to the existing site on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.

The ‘not guilty’ verdict means the jury believed that shutting down the coal plant was justified in the context of the damage to property caused around the world by CO2 emissions from Kingsnorth.

“This verdict marks a tipping point for the climate change movement,” said Ben Stewart, one of the defendants. “If jurors from the heart of Middle England say it’s legitimate for a direct action group to shut down a coal-fired power station because of the harm it does to our planet, then where does that leave government energy policy? We have the clean technologies at hand to power our economy, it’s time we turned to them instead of coal.”

Another defendant, Emily Hall, said after her acquittal: “This is a huge blow for Prime Minster Gordon Brown and his plans for new coal-fired power stations. It wasn’t only us in the dock, it was coal-fired power generation as well. After this verdict, the only people left in Britain who think new coal is a good idea are Business Secretary John Hutton and the Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks. It’s time the Prime Minister stepped in, showed some leadership, and embraced a clean energy future for Britain.”

The defence called as a witness Professor James Hansen, a NASA director who advises Al Gore and is known as the world’s leading climate scientist. Hansen told the court that more than a million species would be made extinct because of climate change and calculated that Kingsnorth would proportionally be responsible for 400 of these. “We are in grave peril,” he told the jury. He said he agreed with Al Gore’s statement that more people should be chaining themselves to coal-powered stations. “Somebody needs to step forward and say there has to be a moratorium, draw a line in the sand and say no more coal-fired power stations.”

Asked by Michael Wolkind QC, for the defence, if carbon dioxide damages property, Hansen replied, “Yes, it does.” Asked if stopping emissions of any amount of it therefore protects property, he replied, “Yes it does, in proportion to the amount.” He added that he thought there was an immediate need to protect property at risk from climate change.

Conservative Party green adviser Zac Goldsmith also gave evidence for the defence. He told the court: “By building a coal-power plant in this country, it makes it very much harder in exerting pressure on countries like China and India. I think that’s something that is felt in Government circles.” He later told the jury: “Legalities aside, I suppose if a crime is intended to prevent much larger crimes, I think then a lot of people would consider that as justified and a good thing.”

Some of the property the court was told was in immediate need of protection included parts of Kent at risk from rising sea levels, the Pacific island state of Tuvalu and areas of Greenland. The defendants also cited the Arctic ice sheet, China’s Yellow River region, the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica, coastal areas of Bangladesh and the city of New Orleans.

The acquittal is the first case where preventing property damage from climate change has been used as part of a ‘lawful excuse’ defence in court. The defence has previously been successfully deployed by defendants accused of damaging a military jet bound for Indonesia to be used in the war against East Timor before independence.

The defendants had intended to paint ‘GORDON BIN IT’ down the side of the chimney but were served a High Court injunction by police helicopter, meaning they only got as far as painting the Prime Minister’s first name.

Last month a new report by Poyry – Europe’s leading energy consultants – concluded that Britain could meet its energy demands without new coal. If the UK hit its existing efficiency and renewables targets it would negate the case for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth and at least seven other proposed sites. An earlier Poyry report, published in June, found at least 16 gigawatts of untapped potential from ‘Combined Heat and Power’ plants – super-efficient power stations that are popular in Scandinavia but little used in the UK.

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