Protesters Call Out ‘Environmental Racism’ at New Statesman Event at Labour Conference

'This is a greenwashing lie and Labour is in on it.'

by Simon Childs

27 September 2022

People walk around the venue during at the Labour party’s annual conference in Liverpool, September 2022. Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Climate protesters disrupted a “greenwashing” event at the Labour party conference sponsored by a company accused of “environmental racism” for polluting Black communities in the US.

The event, entitled “Reaching net zero: How can the UK boost energy security and invest in green jobs?”, was sponsored by Drax and hosted by the New Statesman magazine.

The all-white panel included Clare Harbord, group director of corporate affairs at Drax, and Bill Esterson, Labour’s shadow business secretary.

As the event began, it was interrupted by an activist who said: “How dare you be here, it’s a disgrace.”

“Just yesterday […] there was evidence of Drax’s environmental racism. You’re polluting communities in the southern US – poor, mostly communities of colour.”

Another activist said: “Drax is not sustainable. Chopping down trees halfway round the world and shipping them over here is not sustainable. It never could be sustainable […] this is a greenwashing lie and Labour is in on it.” He was then ushered out of the room by security.

Drax owns a massive power station in north Yorkshire, which environmental organisations say is the biggest single source of CO2 emissions in the UK. The station uses biofuel, and the company calls itself a “renewable energy company”. However, environmental organisations say burning biofuel exacerbates climate change and should not be subsidised.

On Monday, Unearthed – an investigative journalism unit from Greenpeace – revealed that Drax has quietly paid out $3.2m to settle air pollution claims against its wood pellet factories in the United States’ deep south, which are located in majority-Black communities with high poverty rates.

Katherine Egland, a member of the directors’ board of the US’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has accused the UK government of “subsidising environmental racism” by subsidising Drax. A Drax spokesperson told Unearthed: “We take our environmental responsibilities extremely seriously”.

Activists handed out print outs of the Unearthed investigation at the event, some of which were removed by staff.

Activists stood up to raise environmental concerns intermittently throughout the event, one of them complaining that the “greenwashing” was “hard to listen to”. Some were ushered out of the event by security staff while others were allowed to stay.

When protesters interrupted, they were encouraged to instead submit questions for the panellists on an online submission form, and after vetting, questions were displayed on a screen. Activists who submitted questions about “environmental racism” found that the questions spent a few minutes “waiting for review” before being deleted, without being read out or displayed. Novara Media also submitted a question about environmental racism, which was also deleted.

Megan Corton Scott, a political campaigner from Greenpeace, interrupted the event and said: “I would gently say to the New Statesman that it’s not a great look that you’ve got an all-white panel […] and have taken questions about environmental racism off the board.”

She asked Esterson: “Labour has set out a ‘greener, fairer future’ at this conference […] Would you agree or disagree that giving £2m in subsidies per day to a company that is simultaneously paying out millions of dollars to communities of colour in the US because of the health hazards that pollution is causing is a vision for Labour?”

Esterson said he was not familiar with the topic, and moved on to talking about the “incredible opportunity” that reaching net zero presents.

Labour has announced a number of green policies at conference, including a commitment to zero-carbon energy by 2030. Controversially, the UK does not currently count emissions from Drax under its total count, as biofuel is assumed to be carbon neutral because forest regrowth soaks up the carbon despite the obvious emissions from burning trees in the here and now. When Novara Media approached Esterson after the event to ask if Drax will figure in Labour’s zero-carbon strategy, he declined to answer.

Sally Clark from environmental organisation Biofuelwatch, said: “It is deeply disturbing that the Labour party is accepting sponsorship from a company which is devastating forests, wildlife and communities around the world, whilst also making the climate crisis worse. If Labour is serious about its pledge this weekend to cut emissions and support genuinely renewable wind and solar power, the party urgently needs to end its support for Drax’s planet-wrecking tree burning.”

Ellen Robottom, Labour member from Leeds, said: “I am horrified that the party is accepting sponsorship from Drax, one of the worst carbon emitters in Europe and a key part of a disastrous government energy policy which is set to lock in climate destroying dirty fuels for decades to come. The biomass-power industry is responsible for widespread destruction of irreplaceable forest ecosystems and catastrophic reduction of carbon sequestration capacity. The Labour party should be exposing this scam, not colluding with it.”

Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.

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