When it comes to tackling climate change, can the UK hold its nerve?

Jim Skea CBE FEI

Professor Jim Skea CBE EI President

We are in danger of missing legally-binding emissions targets set out in the Climate Change Act. If we’re to fulfil our international obligations under the Paris agreement, we need to up our game—and fast.

For those of us wrestling with how the world should respond to something so scientifically beyond doubt as man-made climate change, the rollercoaster of short-term politics is dizzying. The ups and downs make it hard to discern whether one’s glass, at any given time, is half empty or half full.

Despite recent events, my glass is, surprisingly, half full in relation to the impact of US climate policy. When it comes to the situation on this side of the pond, in contrast, my glass is half empty. This might sound counter-intuitive—but let me explain.

The immediate reaction to President Donald Trump pulling the US out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement—which brought all countries for the first time into a common cause to keep global temperature rise this century well below 2C above pre-industrial levels—was loud and despairing. Newly elected President of France Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address that Trump had “committed an error for the interests of his country, his people and a mistake for the future of our planet.” And it was hard not to see it as such.

But to Christiana Figueres, seen by many as the architect of Paris, it was “a vacuous political melodrama.” This assessment was an early, eloquent hint at a more sanguine view that has come to bear.

President Trump’s decision had the effect of galvanising the remaining big blocs—the EU, India, China and others—into reaffirming their commitment to global action. Likewise many individual US states—who between them control around 70 per cent of US carbon emissions—have also committed to delivering on Paris. And the combination of market forces and technological change is also forcing down US emissions.

According to UK energy professionals surveyed for the Energy Institute’s 2017 Energy Barometer, published yesterday, 66 per cent believe President Trump’s decision will have no effect or is surmountable if US action continues at state level and federal support is reinstated under a future administration.

Turning to the situation in the UK, I am currently less optimistic.

As one of the pioneers of climate action, the UK has been in the driving seat of the EU’s climate leadership. Founded on cross party consensus—in 2008 only three MPs voted against the UK’s ambitious domestic legislation, the Climate Change Act—it was reassuring to hear the Queen reaffirm in last week’s state opening of parliament that the government intends to “continue to support international action against climate change, including the implementation of the Paris Agreement.”

But Paris cannot simply be pigeonholed as foreign policy. It is a global agreement, but it requires clear and determined action domestically on the part of all signatories.
In the UK, sticking to commitments under the Climate Change Act is just the starter. The Paris Agreement means we have to go further and up our ambition, aiming towards zero emissions in the second half of this century.

But the Energy Barometer finds that 77 per cent of UK energy professionals believe we will fall short or significantly short of the 57 per cent reduction in emissions on 1990 levels required under the Climate Change Act by 2030.

This assessment is in the context of existing policies and reflects a similar finding by the Committee on Climate Change—that we are likely to hit the current second and third carbon budgets but, without significant policy innovation, the fourth and fifth will prove elusive.

The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change advised ministers earlier this year that they must set out a clear long-term vision for the future of climate related policy to 2030 and beyond if investment is to be made in the UK.

We have been waiting for this since government and parliament accepted the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on the fifth carbon budget a year ago.

But energy and climate change policy has effectively been on ice. Distracted by Brexit, elections and other major challenges, the Clean Growth Plan is now delayed well beyond the statutory deadline. Other long-awaited policies remain on the Whitehall drawing board.

After a decade of tremendous progress in decarbonisation and renewable investment in the power sector, this has knocked investor confidence. Investment in clean energy plunged in the first quarter of 2017 to around $1bn, the lowest since 2010. Add to this the potential loss of around £2.5bn of European Investment Bank loans in energy each year and the need for government to deliver a clear and credible strategy is critical.

The low carbon transition is a challenge for any advanced economy and, set against Brexit, an unenviable task. But commitments made in law and on the international stage must be matched by actions on the ground.

Signs of action are needed soon if my optimism—and my glass—are to be replenished.

The Energy Institute’s Energy Barometer 2017 is available here.

The Committee on Climate Change’s statutory 2017 Report to Parliament is available here.

This blog post first appeared as an article for Prospect magazine online on 28 June 2017

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