Confounding Decisions on Combatting Climate Change by the UK Government

The new UK government is unraveling its energy policy.

The new Conservative government is letting slip its commitments to renewable energy and climate change mitigation. The bad decisions keep coming, and do not add up to a policy strategy consistent with the UK’s emissions and efficiency targets, and more generally with fighting climate change.

Last week, the government announced it would scrap the zero carbon homes target for 2016. The target was announced a long time in advance (in 2006), and nine years of industry commitment could now be lost. This is a huge setback in the path to a low carbon UK, and undermines the credibility of government energy and climate policy.

This follows the abolition of the Energy Efficiency Deployment Office immediately after the May elections. The office was seen as a potential game-changer just three years ago, and this move could reduce energy efficiency to the secondary and marginal role it played in the past.

Power down

Sadly, other recent decisions also throw into question the Conservative government’s green credentials. In June this year, it declared new onshore wind farms would be excluded from a subsidy scheme from April 2016, a year earlier than expected. Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, stated at the time that there were “enough subsidised [onshore wind] projects in the pipeline to meet our renewable energy commitments”. She claimed subsidies would be shifted to technologies that needed them more, although she did not specify which technologies those might be.

The announcement dashed hopes that Rudd’s appointment might signal a serious, sensible approach to reducing carbon emissions. Critics said the move could put thousands of jobs at risk and makes it even less likely that the UK would meet its renewable energy targets for 2020 and beyond, for which Carbon Brief suggests the country is already behind schedule.

Shale we dance?

In contrast, fracking received huge tax breaks from the previous (coalition) government, with David Cameron declaring they were “going all out for shale”, even as environmental groups suggested it would make it impossible for the UK to meet emission reduction targets.

The momentum is not slowing: the 2015 summer budget makes it clear the newly elected government wants to move faster on “sweeteners” to appeal to, or appease, affected residents by bringing forward proposals for a sovereign wealth fund for communities that host shale gas development. What’s more, drilling restrictions are being eased to the extent that important wildlife habitats are now fair game.

Looking back at the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto, we find the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” appear only five times between them (compare 27 instances of the word “immigration”). There is a declaration of intention to act on climate change, to push for a strong global deal, and support for the Climate Change Act, but the language is vague, without specific mechanisms or proposed policies.

However, the manifesto headlines the government’s intention to halt the spread of onshore wind. Rudd referred to this in her first appearance as Secretary of State before her departmental Select Committee on Tuesday, arguing that the end to wind energy subsidies did not come as a surprise to the industry. She further stated she is happier with carbon reduction commitments than renewables commitments. This brings to mind her recent call to make nuclear power stations more “beautiful” to win over public support.

The government’s rhetoric around renewables focuses on the costs to consumers, raising fears of more premature subsidy cuts. Meanwhile, oil and gas are highlighted as an answer to energy security, no matter what the costs. Given this unfavourable policy environment, and considering that the statutory Climate Change Committee’s latest report flagged policy uncertainty as the key risk to meeting our carbon commitments, we should worry if and how the UK will meet these commitments, which build up to a 2050 target of reducing emissions by 80% compared to a 1990 baseline.

Meanwhile, analysis by the Green Alliance suggests that behind the predicted 3.3% reduction in spending across government by 2020 there lurk much bigger reductions in some areas. Looking at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and allowing ring fencing to cover capital expenditures and liabilities associated with coal and nuclear, this could actually translate to a 90% reduction in its staff budget by 2018-19.

In practice, such a reduction in staffing at the department might not mean much in the near-term, given how vague the Tory manifesto was about climate change. However, in years to come, even if this government (or the next one) wanted to tighten up on energy and climate policy, they simply would not have enough qualified staff to do so – rectifying that shortage would not happen overnight.

While the merits of individual policy decisions can be argued, a wider trend is emerging. The government strategy appears anti-renewables and anti-energy efficiency, while simultaneously boosting oil and gas exploration (including fracking). It all seems alarmingly at odds with fighting climate change; perhaps the Tories really are “getting rid of the green crap”.

This is a populist, short-term focused strategy, which in the longer run could hurt energy policy goals on energy efficiency, energy security and household energy bills. It will make the UK’s emission reduction targets much harder to meet, and risks undermining the country’s standing internationally in the run-up to the next UN climate change conference, due to be held in Paris in December.

Shortsighted Tory energy policies could undo years of effort is republished with permission from The Conversation

The Conversation

See also: Business Preparedness and the New Normal of Climate Change