UK energy policy on trial: Greenpeace versus Kingsnorth

In a landmark judgement in September 2008 at Medway Crown Court in Kent, England, 6 Greenpeace activists were found not guilty of criminal damage after they had daubed the word Gordon onto the emissions stack of the Kingsnorth coal fired power station. The trial jury accepted Greenpeace's claim of lawful excuse that they were acting in defence of the global climate. The judgement is set to transform the politics of energy generation and distribution in the UK, it is a resounding victory for the environment.

But how did such a situation come to pass? How did Greenpeace build up their campaign to arrive at this historic point?

Over recent years, Greenpeace had established a strong anti coal campaigning position as part of its programme of activities aimed at mitigating UK greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2006 its focus had been on promoting policies aimed at decentralising the UK's energy generation to achieve greater efficiency and to establish a new national model for energy generation, one more suited to renewable technologies, such as wind, wave and solar power. In that campaign it had won strong backing from the UK's main Opposition Party, the Tories.

But when it became clear that there were to be fresh applications from energy generators to build new coal fired power stations in the UK, and that these might well be welcomed by the UK Government, Greenpeace switched its campaigning focus and decided to take a stand against the first of these applications, the application from EON to build a new coal fired plant at Kingsnorth in Kent.

Greenpeace set out to demonise Kingsnorth, and to make it stand for everything that was wrong about UK energy policy. Kingsnorth was to be a new, large and typically wasteful power station, where between half and two-thirds of the energy created by burning, mostly imported, coal would be lost in heat escaping from its cooling towers and through long distance transmission of its electrical current to end users. Not only that, but Kingsnorth would lock the UK into a further 4 decades reliance on a centralised energy generation model. But Kingsnorth's greatest sin was its projected carbon emissions which would stand at 4.45 million tonnes of CO2 per annum, possibly extending across the plant's entire projected 40 year operating life. Such a scale of emissions would undermine UK Government commitments to achieving dramatic cuts in CO2 emissions required by its international obligations as well as its own stated carbon reduction targets. In addition, acceptance of the new plant by the UK Government would severely undermine any attempts made by the UK in the future to discourage wholesale acceptance of coal as an energy source among the rapidly industrialising countries, such as India and China. And, of course, the emissions from the plant would exacerbate an already critical overburdening of the atmosphere with CO2 gasses.

Greenpeace decided it needed to create a national focus around Kingsnorth at a time when planning consent for the new plant was to be decided by Medway District Council, the local planning authority. Greenpeace therefore took action, following its classic direct action model of campaigning. 6 activists scaled the emissions stack of the existing plant in order to interfere with its operations and they painted the word Gordon (a direct reference to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown) in bold letters down the side of the chimney.

Greenpeace uses high profile and cleverly staged direct actions to highlight environmental abuse. The technique has been developed over 30 years of campaigning. What isn't so well appreciated is that Greenpeace conducts its direct actions within campaigning contexts that have very specific political aims and which are backed by very well researched scientific investigation into the relevant environmental issues. In this case, as activist Ben Stewart put it, we had the science on our side, we were supremely confident on that score. Through its direct action, Greenpeace was literally drawing the attention of the UK Prime Minister to Kingsnorth, and directly associating him with the plant. This would create important political space to allow UK opposition leaders to dissociate themselves from the plant. This tactic worked. UK Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg categorically denounced the plant and UK Tory leader David Cameron did likewise by implication, by adopting a CO2 emissions standards policy that would effectively rule out Kingsnorth and any other plant like it. The Government were isolated.

But did Greenpeace plan the trial at Medway Crown Court to be the show piece it indeed became. Not so, says Ben Stewart. It was only following the action, after Greenpeace had been charged with 30,000 worth of criminal damage to Kingsnorth (there was also a possibility of one or more activists receiving a custodial sentence for their part in the protest) and when it became clear there would be a full jury trial, that Greenpeace was stung into action on this new campaign front. Of course we knew there was a high risk of being charged with criminal damage, that there would be some kind of a trial and that we would no doubt plead lawful excuse, many activists have gone down that road before. But we had no idea, when we climbed the tower, that we were in fact heading towards a jury trial, which is like a piece of legal theatre, where, as far as we were concerned. we could put the Government's energy policy on trial.

As so often had happened in the past with Greenpeace campaigns, over-reaction by an aggrieved party had given Greenpeace a stage on which it could play out its campaigning drama.

Faced now with the opportunity to create a show trial Greenpeace sought the assistance of star witnesses whose presence at the trial would escalate its newsworthiness, as well as strengthening the Greenpeace claim of lawful excuse. Greenpeace asked NASA scientist Jim Hanson to testify on their behalf. Hanson is one of the fathers of climate science. Ben Stewart says of him, we had Jim Hanson's science in our heads as we climbed the Kingsnorth stack, we never dreamt we'd actually meet him, lay aside that he would come all the way to Kent to testify in our defence. But Hanson, like former US Vice President Al Gore, had taken a particularly strong stance against future coal fired electricity generation, calling for a line to be drawn in the sand against coal on the grounds of the fuel's notorious carbon intensity. Both had called for public protest against coal. At the trial in Medway Crown Court, Hanson presented a breathtaking case against the future use of coal fired electricity generation. The jury were duly persuaded.

Greenpeace also used the trial to up the political anti by inviting Opposition Environment spokesman Zack Goldsmith to testify on their behalf. Zack's testimony carried a strong political message, that powerful influences within the Tory hierarchy were strongly opposed to the idea of future coal generation within the UK. In the event, the jury found in Greenpeace's favour. In effect, said Ben Stewart, the jury had found that Kingsnorth presented more of a public nuisance than Greenpeace - we had some real legitimacy behind us at last.

Now Greenpeace needs to build on that legitimacy, to consolidate its court victory and avoid the illusion of victory that befalls so many high profile campaigns. Greenpeace knows it can't change UK Government energy policy on its own, but with an historic court decision on its side, Greenpeace can move ahead to build a new alliance of civil organisations and faith groups which can elevate the moral case against new coal fired electricity generation to such a height that it becomes politically unacceptable to push it through.

The Greenpeace campaign against Kingsnorth is a classic example of combining opportunism with painstaking scientific and political analysis.