THE BLOG

David Cameron's Ideological Assault on the Environment Could Have Catastrophic Consequences Beyond Our Own Borders

15/09/2015 15:33 BST | Updated 15/09/2016 10:12 BST

In October the European Parliament will vote on proposals to strengthen existing air quality legislation, on which I have been working in the Environment Committee. But leaked documents have shown the UK Government is already hard at work undermining these efforts.

Confidential government submissions to Brussels, revealed by the Guardian, argue the UK would lose out due to the high sulphur content of British coal. This, it claims, would lead to pit closures and a greater need to import from foreign competitors.

This course of action is utterly self-defeating, and it will cost the UK further down the line.

We need to wean ourselves off of our dependence on coal and develop alternatives that will allow the UK to become a leader in renewable and non-fossil fuel energy. Our future economic growth depends on it.

In the short-term we can and must take immediate action to limit emissions from heavy polluting sources. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology offers such a possibility; but digging up coal offers no long-term solution for powering our industry and keeping our homes heated.

The costs of an over-reliance on fossil fuels are unsustainable; not only are coal plants the top source of CO2 emissions - the primary cause of global warming - but they also add significantly to the problem of air pollution and corresponding health effects and premature deaths this causes.

Unfortunately the Government's position appears blind to this reality and this latest intervention is by no means an exception.

The litany of wasted opportunities and a willingness to concede to the narrow-minded climate change-sceptics on the Tory backbenches have pushed the government to the fringes of the environmental debate. David Cameron's claim to be the 'greenest Government ever' has been well and truly hollowed out.

This government has scrapped subsidies for onshore wind, solar and incentives to replace coal with biomass. It has sold off the Green Investment Bank. It has done away with incentives for consumers to buy greener cars, dropped targets to increase the proportion of revenue from environmental taxes and given up on a pledge of making every new home 'carbon-free' from 2016. Cameron has even u-turned on his pledge to stop fracking in sites of scientific special interest.

Not content with undermining the cheapest and cleanest and economically viable energy sources available, Tory ministers are now set on protecting the big polluters and putting the health of the British people at risk.

The link between our health and air pollution is incontrovertible. Poor air quality causes lower birth weight and reduced lung development of children in polluted areas. It causes asthma, pulmonary heart disease, strokes and lung and bladder cancer. It's killing 10,000 in London every year alone, and it's hitting the poorest and the most vulnerable hardest.

The UK has been in breach of the EU's nitrogen dioxide limit since 2010. The government's record is so poor that the Supreme Court has stepped in and ordered it to present a credible plan to address the problem.

The Environment Secretary's contempt for the Supreme Courts ruling is significant, but the consequences of the Government's actions on the international stage are possibly disastrous.

In December, world leaders will assemble at the COP 21 summit in Paris to thrash out new binding promises and targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, in the hope of containing global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius and to limit the most extreme and catastrophic impacts of climate change. Failure is not an option.

So what message does the UK picking fights over our domestic coal industry send out to other big polluters like China and India? Why on earth should other, fast-growing economies listen to the preaching's of UK ministers, when the UK is so keen to follow its own, ultimately short-term and self-defeating, self-interest?

Unlike David Cameron, President Obama has had the courage of his own convictions. His plans to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 32% by 2030 would transform hundreds of US coal-fired powers stations and mines. He will expend significant political capital by laying down the gauntlet to state governors likely to push for legal challenges, to Republican senators and congressman, and to vested interests in the fossil-fuel industry to seek cleaner, greener alternatives.

Obama's actions send out a clear message that a deal can be done in Paris. Cameron so-far offers nothing but outdated and short-term thinking.

His ideological assault on environmental policies, including air quality legislation, is not only putting the lives of people at risk, but is having a serious impact on our ability to cut global carbon emissions before its too late.

Our current political leaders, whether we support them on other matters or not, must not abdicate themselves from showing the leadership the world so desperately needs.