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A Long Day for the UK at the United Nations Climate Change Summit

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A day is a very long time at the annual United Nations climate change summit, and especially so for British delegates this year here in Doha, Qatar.

On 4 December, the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, made a positive announcement that his Government would by the end of this year complete the delivery of £1.5 billion in funding to assist developing countries with the transition to low-carbon economic development and growth, and to adapt to those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided.

The money is supporting a variety of projects in Africa and other parts of the world, many of which will also provide broad and multiple benefits, including an increase in energy and water security.

This was an example of British leadership in the international arena and demonstrated the enormous amount of 'soft power' that the UK can exert by helping poorer nations, many of which will be hit first and hardest by the impacts of climate change.

What a contrast a day later. Alongside the Chancellor's autumn statement, the Department of Energy and Climate Change on 5 December published its gas generation strategy which again signalled a potential weakening of the UK Government's commitment to reducing emissions such that there is a reasonable chance of avoiding global warming of more than 2°C.

Last year, the Government accepted the recommendation of the independent Committee on Climate Change that the UK's fourth carbon budget for the period between 2023 to 2027 should be set at a level that annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 will be 50 per cent lower than they were in 1990.

The Committee's recommendation was based on the recognition that the 2008 Climate Change Act has set a target for the UK to reduce its emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050. This goal was based on the understanding that rich industrialised countries need to reduce their emissions by this amount in order for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding global warming of more than 2°C.

The 2°C target was agreed by all countries in 2010 at the United Nations climate change summit in Cancún, Mexico. However, an analysis published last month by the United Nations Environment Programme indicated that pledges made so far by countries for 2020 are inconsistent with that goal and instead threaten warming of 3°C or more.

The Earth has not experienced a global average temperature that is 3°C higher than pre-industrial levels for about 3 million years, during the Pliocene epoch. In that prehistoric climate, long before the very beginnings of human civilisation about 10,000 years ago, the polar ice caps were much smaller than today and global sea level was 15 to 25 metres higher. The risks associated with plunging the Earth's climate 3 million years into the past are patently enormous, and hence the importance of trying to avoid warming by more than 2°C.

Yet that is what the UK Government appears to be considering. The gas strategy indicates that the UK's fourth carbon budget will be reviewed by the Government in 2014, with the possibility of weakening it and hence shifting it off a path that is consistent with the 2°C target.

The strategy argues that such a move might be necessary if the European Union's Emissions Trading System, which caps the level of about 40 per cent of the emissions of Member States, is not tightened so that it is consistent with the 2°C target.

This is bizarre and reckless reasoning. It proposes that if the rest of the European Union is not doing enough to limit warming to no more than 2°C, then the UK should be similarly irresponsible and reduce its ambition to manage the risks of dangerous climate change.

Although, the gas generation strategy was published by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, it had the fingerprints of the Treasury all over it, and provides further evidence of the confusion and incoherence within the Coalition Government over energy and climate policy.

Constant bickering and the lack of consistency between ministers are undermining the confidence of private investors who have the billions of pounds required to create a modern, efficient and clean power system in the UK.

These mixed and contradictory messages, as have been delivered within the space of 24 hours here in Doha, also damage the UK's reputation as an international leader on the world stage, and hinder the global political effort to effectively manage the huge risks of climate change.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.