How to fail and win at local politics. Put forward a Carbon Tax motion.

Cllr Joanna Wright, Green Party, Bath & North East Somerset Council

On a recent evening a Green Councillor asked fellow Councillors to support a Carbon Tax motion at a Council meeting. 

Despite putting forward a clear argument for a Carbon Tax the majority of Councillors decided to amend the motion and vote in favour of a Carbon Pricing scheme instead. 

Such a scheme only equates to a different form of carbon trading.  The Councillors who supported carbon pricing quickly turned from debating the motion to a range of personal attacks on the Green councillor.  After a vote the majority win and a Carbon Pricing motion is supported and passed.

This is a brief description of events that took place at Bath and North East Somerset Council (B&NES) meeting on the 17th November 2021. There are fifty-four councillors at B&NES of which thirty six are Liberal Democrats and I am the sole Green, having left the Lib Dems in June 2021 to rejoin the Green Party. This Carbon Tax motion has highlighted to me why voting Green and getting Green politicians elected matters at every level of the political game.

The Green Party are currently championing a Carbon Tax and the Green New Deal as a fair way to cut carbon emissions. Globally, economists widely support a comprehensive carbon tax with a citizen dividend as it is recognised by leading economists that putting a price on the burning of fossil fuels by charging the highest emitters a carbon tax and then paying a dividend to the poorest is the most effective way to improve public health, provide affordable public transport, improve housing and buildings and overall it is a fairer way to make change and keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Molly Scott Cato, the Green Party’s economic spokesperson supports the Carbon Tax as a way of forcing a sea change in behaviour from the highest polluters.  Many of us are aware of the power that the fossil fuel industry has and how the present carbon market is set up in such a way that it has become an easy tool for the fossil fuel lobbyists to put off and dilute the necessary changes needed to keep CO2 in the ground. The current rules allow coal plant owners to cut their emissions and then sell their allowance to someone else, thus creating the same carbon – just somewhere else.  A carbon tax with a dividend is different, the carbon emitter is charged for their output, it cannot be sold on and the income generated goes back to the poorest to invest in green technology and greener ways of living that do not emit carbon. In the UK alone a carbon tax could generate £80bn a year in revenue. It would, according to Molly Scott Cato, “create a clear market signal” and initiate action now to reduce the carbon in our atmosphere.

The role of all Green Party members is to address the climate crisis and enable positive and sustainable changes to happen. How and where we do that, and what it looks like can take any shapes, from protesting to planting trees.  As a sole Green councillor, I use my role in a myriad of ways to highlight the need for climate and social justice and to bring green ideas and initiatives into view at a public and local Council level. We have seen how effective Carla Denyer’s Climate Emergency motion has been across the UK, encouraging residents, parishes and councils to change how they think about global heating, as well as creating change and action at a local, regional and national level.  A council motion is a statement of intent and with it hopefully comes action.

In September this year I was asked by a fellow Green member to put forward the Carbon Tax motion to a B&NEs Council meeting.  This sounds simple enough.  However, having left the Lib Dems I was only too aware of how they are running the Council they currently control. This includes amending every motion at a Council meeting so that they can effectively “own” it and can get good press coverage from it.

As the sole Green, I already knew that to even get a motion into the Council chamber would require another Councillor to second the Carbon Tax motion. Alliances and working with other parties is key, however due to my departure from the Lib Dem group I was only too aware that it would be unlikely that support from this group would be favourable. I decided to approach the local Labour group to second the Carbon Tax Motion. Labour agreed. The motion was written up and sent to the politically neutral Democratic Services section of the Council, who checked to see if there was any cost or liability that could stop the council from tabling it. There were no reasons for the Carbon Tax motion not to be taken forward, it essentially just asked local Cllrs to support the carbon tax and write letters to local MPs and central Government.  Due process was followed and a week before the council meeting, Democratic Services sent out the Council agenda and the Carbon Tax motion was item 16 on a wide range of items that included a report from the Standards Committee and a statement on the Council’s actions to reduce Violence Against Women.

Two days before the Council meeting I received an email from the Liberal Democrats asking me to withdraw the Carbon Tax motion, “to remove the politics” and “bring the resulting motion back to a future council meeting.”

As a former Lib Dem I was aware that this tactic  that this might be a game of predatory delay and kicking the motion into the long grass. But I already knew I had support from the Labour Party so that the motion would be tabled.

On the day of the Council meeting at midday I received an email from Democratic Services with the amendments from the Lib Dem group to the Carbon Tax motion, not only had they changed its name to Carbon Pricing, they had amended much of the wording throughout, changing the meaning of the motion and radically altering the request to central government and to the Conference of the Parties (COP).

As the mover of the motion I had several options:

1.withdraw the motion all together from the agenda; 

2.as the proposer use my allotted five minutes and then withdraw the motion (technically allowed, but not good practice); 

3.table my motion and then accept the amendments 

4. table the motion, not accept the amendments, recognise that the Lib Dems would then hold the motion, and vote against this motion.

5. table the motion, not accept the amendments, recognise that the Lib Dems would then hold the motion, and then be pragmatic and vote for the Lib Dems new motion.

When a local council has one party with a large majority the power that they wield in the Council is enormous.  Over the last few years I have watched as motion upon motion has been withdrawn or completely rewritten to suit the Lib Dems.  So I was only too aware of the approach that the Lib Dem ruling group would take, once this motion went live in the chamber. I realised that this ruling group would probably decide to take the motion and possibly me apart. 

I opted for the last option because I think a Carbon Tax is needed, not Carbon Pricing.  The economic argument for carbon pricing is poor, and however much bluster was used by the Lib Dems, their argument and amendment on carbon pricing essentially calls for a trading scheme that’s been proven to favour the billionaires and corporations with windfall profits, and punish the 99 percent and poorest. This is not fair, it is not green, it is greenwashing.

The time frame of a council motion was also stacked against me as a sole green.  The thirty-six Lib Dems could all get three minutes each to put their views, I would have only three minutes. I went with option 5 and proposed the Carbon Tax motion, Labour seconded the motion. The amendments were tabled. I did not accept them. Numerous Lib Dems spoke against carbon tax and in favour of carbon pricing, dismissing global economists, dismissing the Green Party. What surprised me most was how they used the moment to take apart not just the motion but me personally.  The attacks towards me were finally questioned by a Labour Councillor who chastised the Chair and other councillors and reminded them that should they speak to the motion itself, not attack the person presenting it.  It was suggested that I make a formal complaint. 

Finally, as the proposer of the motion I had three minutes to sum up the debate.

I ended the motion by saying that:

“As the sole Green Cllr at B&NES I am aware that the Lib Dem majority will at all times be able to veto any motion I put forward.  The need for political parties to cooperate to achieve the changes that need to happen does not seem to be forthcoming. I do not accept the amendments to this motion. But they will be passed, so I will be pragmatic about dealing with the consequences and will continue to advocate for a Carbon Tax.”

Following the meeting I was contacted by many residents who were appalled by the poor chairing of the meeting and for the behaviour of the Lib Dem group towards me. I have subsequently written to the council’s Monitoring Officer and asked the the following questions:

When a motion is put forward does the proposer have to accept “minor amendments” from other parties?

If the proposer does not accept “minor amendments” from other parties, is it constitutional for those Councillors to directly attack the proposer?

Can you clarify how the constitution states how a motion can be changed?  That is if minor amendments significantly alter the meaning of the motion – is that an accepted amendment?

During the debate if a Councillor is personally attacked and not the motion who is responsible for intervening?  Is it the Chair, Deputy Chair or Monitoring Officer?

Who makes the judgement whether the attack is personal or not?

The 17th November was a brutal experience, but an experience worth having, because what it did was force local politicians and residents to think about what they believe in and what they do not.  The climate and ecological emergency is forcing everyone of us to think about new terms and use new language.  Every conversation we have with these new words and ideas allows for everyone’s consciousness to expand and accept new ways of thinking, and this in turn will lead to shifts in politics and behaviour.  All I did on the 17th was plant a seed, a Green Party seed that believes the biggest polluters should be taxed and for this dividend to be shared out amongst the poorest.

Watch the YouTube of the B&NES Council Meeting 17th November 2021

Making the polluter pay for the transition to net zero, Friends of the Earth, 2019:

https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/…/making-polluter…

A carbon tax is ‘single most powerful’ way to combat climate change, IMF says, CNBC, 10/19:

https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/…/making-polluter…

Molly Scott Cato https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=molly%20scott%20cato

For full details of the motion see https://democracy.bathnes.gov.uk/documents/s68834/Cllr%20Wright%20Motion%20-%20Carbon%20Tax.pdf

Text of Liberal Democrat email sent to Joanna Wright 15th November 2021

“If you would like to collaborate on a motion, we would suggest that you consider withdrawing the motion from this week’s council meeting, so that we can work closely in the coming weeks on a cross-party basis to remove the politics from such an important issue, and bring the resulting motion back to a future council meeting.”

START – Joanna Wrights’ 5 minute introduction to the Carbon Tax Motion

Roman Abramovich uses 34,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Bill Gates uses 7500 tonnes of CO2 per year.

The average global footprint is presently 5 tons of CO2 per person a year

Preventing temperatures from rising above 1.5C requires that the 

average CO2 emissions should be no greater than 2 tonnes of CO2 per person per year.

52% of the CO2 added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015 was generated by the wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s population. Of which some, if not all of us in this room are part.

The problem for planet earth is that this 10% are the major CO2 emitters and if they are to play a role in combating the effects of climate change then a new way of taxing CO2 emissions needs to be put in place.

A comprehensive carbon tax and a citizen’s dividend is one of the few ways of bringing down CO2 emissions in a way that is equitable and fair for all.

35 percent of energy related CO2 emissions are generated by twenty state-owned and multinational companies.

Advocates of the free market would like us all to believe that these businesses now understand the climate-change science and are willing to play a part in tackling it. The reason why major polluters love net zero targets at some distant time in the future is because it is a brilliant way of avoiding restricting emissions now. They continue to burn fossil fuels relentlessly and no one is putting a price on this action.

No industry or government is currently voluntarily agreeing to cease production.  Everyday we, ‘humans” continue to emit CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate that is leading to catastrophic warming that will make the livelihoods of millions unsustainable.

The scale of what is needed is politically uncomfortable.It is much easier to stick with our current behaviour than face up to the evidence that tells us we need to change that behaviour now.

Creating a new vision for how we all live on the earth in a way that uses less CO2 is essential to our survival. Taxing high CO2 polluters to fund the transition to a much more carbon neutral way of living for everyone and creating better public health, affordable public transport, improved housing and buildings is essential to that vision. 

The task of our political generation is to put this into action now.

I therefore call on this Council to support a comprehensive carbon tax as set out in the motion. FINISH

START Joanna Wright’s Summing Up statement 17th November 2021

The title of the motion states exactly what this motion is about – a Carbon Tax.

The motion explicitly is about using a carbon tax to tax the highest emitters so that a just transition to zero carbon can be reached. And the money raised can be returned to citizens in ways that improves the lives for everyone.

The Lib Dem amendment is not a minor change to the motion. It is a radically different offer and it fails to understand the difference between a carbon tax and carbon pricing.

 Carbon pricing is totally inadequate and equates to carbon trading. Planet Earth does Not need any more markets for creating Green House Gases, which is what carbon trading will allow, what we need is leadership to deliver real change. What we need is a Carbon Tax.

The Carbon Tax proposal was initiated by leading economists from around the world. They understand quite clearly the difference between a Carbon Tax and Carbon Pricing.   

Advocates of the free market have repeatedly used greenwashing terminology in a way that confuses the average person. It is very hard for many to understand words such as off-setting, net zero, carbon pricing and carbon tax.

What the Lib Dem’s offer in their changes to this Green Party motion is greenwashing.  The Lib Dem’s began the week by asking this motion to be withdrawn.  The amended motion radically alters the request to central government and to the Conference of the Parties that is COP.

Putting a price on the burning of fossil fuels by creating a carbon tax is an equitable way to deliver that change. Carbon pricing does not achieve this change.

As the sole Green Cllr at B&NES I am aware that the Lib Dem majority will at all times be able to veto any motion I put forward.  The need for political parties to co-operate to achieve the changes that need to happen does not seem to be forthcoming. I do not accept the amendments to this motion. But they will be passed, so I will be pragmatic about dealing with the consequences and will continue to advocate for a Carbon Tax. FINISH

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