With Labour comfortably leading in the polls, it seems likely that Ed Miliband will soon be taking over from Claire Coutinho as energy secretary. What is his track record?

Listening on coal

In 2008, Miliband became the UK’s first Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Previously these had been treated as separate areas and Gordon Brown’s government was the first to connect them in one department (DECC).

One of the biggest energy and climate issues he tackled in the role was coal power. Environmental campaigning crystallised around controversial plans to build two new units at Kingsnorth power station in Kent. When Miliband took over at DECC, six Greenpeace activists had just been acquitted of criminal damage after attempting to shut the place down. The case made legal history as the first example of preventing climate change being successfully used in a “lawful excuse” defence.

Miliband was put on the spot at a film premiere the following year when Pete Postlethwaite challenged him to drop the Kingsnorth plans. A few months on, hundreds of protesters formed a ring around the site and named it the “Mili-band”.

Miliband resisted the temptation to announce anything in the heat of the moment, but he eventually made an important change to UK coal policy: there would be no new coal without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The Kingsnorth decision was postponed until eventually the project was shelved.

Since then the UK has significantly reduced its reliance on coal. May 2019 saw the first coal-free week for the National Grid.

Support for real action on emissions

Just weeks after his appointment at DECC, Miliband raised the UK’s emission-cutting targets from 60% to 80% by 2050.

The Conservative government has since set an even more ambitious and legally binding target of net zero by 2050. But progress has been slow. In 2022, the High Court ruled that the government’s climate strategy does not put us on track to achieve this. In June 2023, the Climate Change Committee released a damning report setting out just how far behind we are. Investors have begged current prime minister Rishi Sunak for clarity on net zero policy. But instead we have seen U-turns on green pledges such as the transition to EVs.

Labour’s manifesto for the current election has a clear plan for getting us back on track for net zero. We can expect Ed Miliband to follow through with this programme, implementing measures such as insulating our homes and further investing in renewables. He has shared a specific enthusiasm for decentralised renewable energy, so we also predict a move towards more support for rooftop solar.

Support for CCUS

Miliband supported carbon capture and storage when it was considered an unproven technology. He was the minister to announce CCS clusters and brought in a levy on electricity suppliers to pay for the first one. Since then, CCS/CCUS has become a key part of the Conservatives’ climate strategy. The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution committed the Conservative government to spending a billion pounds (eventually). As someone who supported carbon capture when it was considered costly and impractical, we can expect Miliband to continue with his support now that the technology is more mature.

Clashing over climate ambition?

During his previous stint in Cabinet, some felt that Ed Miliband wanted to be more ambitious on the climate than his actions under Gordon Brown might suggest. For example, there were persistent rumours that he planned to introduce carbon rationing, or “personal carbon trading”. (This reporter spoke to his office in November 2010 and was told that he had “no immediate plans” to introduce it.)

Back in office with an energy and/or climate brief, will he seize this second chance to make bigger changes? And will this mean clashing with the prime minister on some policies? As shadow climate change secretary he was unequivocal about opposing the new coal mine in Cumbria. But as Labour campaigns to become the next government, it has not answered questions on whether it would seek to overturn planning permission for the project. 

There are plenty of unknowns about the future of UK energy and climate policy, so we can expect an interesting second half of the year. The Energy Advice Hub will bring you the latest updates as they happen.

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