Photo credit: Mark Robinson
When Xi Jinping's treasure ship recently hove into view amidst a roar of diplomatic hubbub, David Cameron was amongst the first to rush the gangplank, hurtle across the quarterdeck and throw himself squarely at the feet of the Imperial master - pledging allegiance and devoted fiscal fraternity in a devastating display of sycophantic aplomb. Not that our humble PM should be expected to ignore such an important guest; Xi is the head of a nation that has, in essence, entirely redefined the global political landscape. However, his ceremonial prostrations might, on the whole, have escaped the general public's attention were they not rewarded with a rather impressively sized nail (made of Chinese steel, of course), in the shape of the Hinkley Point nuclear power deal, to further drive into the coffin of the UK's commitment to halting climate change. And all this amidst what had previously seemed like such a heroic stance on reducing the UK's reliance upon coal power and the recent announcement that Britain will close all coal fuelled power stations by 2025.
As the first major economy to take this much-lauded step, the UK's commitment to phasing out coal has been welcomed by green campaigners the world over; from the World Wildlife Fund to seasoned eco-veteran, Al Gore. Today, 41% of global electricity output is still produced from coal, with percentages considerably higher in the case of certain nations. For example, in India approximately 60% of domestic electricity needs are created from coal, a figure that is nonetheless predicted to rise astronomically in the near future. China itself produces around 66% of its electricity output from coal, securing the dubious distinction of being the world's largest user of this particular fossil fuel. Being a key driver in anthropogenic climate change, coal is high on the agenda of any efforts to arrest rising temperatures as well as concerns over human health associated with subsequent pollution issues.
It is probably no coincidence that China finally seems willing to consider the importance of ecological issues at a time when 4,400 of its citizens are dying each day from the related side-effects of pollution. And yet, with coal also being a key driver of industry, no one has thus far seemed willing to make the first serious move on cutting back its usage. In this environment, the UK's commitment to cutting out coal has extended a lifeline to the possibility of putting inter-generational equality before short term interest. Which only makes more confusing and tragic the fact that Cameron's government has decided to replace coal with another, almost equally undesirable, fuel - specifically gas and nuclear.
Cameron's commitment to gas and nuclear energy, despite the best arguments of naysayers, was far from inevitable. It is true that the UK is potentially at risk of blunting its competitive edge on the global market by cutting coal out of its production loop, whilst so many other nations - both large and small - are unwilling to pursue a similar course of action.
Indeed, one huge issue facing any attempt to reduce the global reliance on coal powered energy plants, is that of subsidisation. The political need to pander to the dubiously garnered power of unions, or in order to maintain certain monopolies and uncompetitive advantages, are most often cited as the underlying causes of the kind of hefty subsidies prevalent throughout fossil fuel industries. And with over $400 billion each year spent on propping up fossil fuel production by the G20 nations alone, failure to include the issue of subsidisation in any further dialogue on arresting climate change would signal the unavoidable failure of the dialogue itself.
It is patently clear that not only does fossil fuel subsidisation hinder efforts to tackle climate change but, as the only nation to kick coal into touch, it also inhibits the UK's ability to commercially compete on an even playing field. All in all then, eyebrows would not have been raised when Cameron's hat was thrown into the gas and nuclear power ring, acting as an economic counterweight to eliminating coal, were it not for the bemusing course of action the government has taken in slashing solar power subsidies.
In a move that experts have threatened will entirely decimate a promising green industry, the government wants to slash 87% of the subsidy bill for householders who install solar panels. Blaming the need to implement such large scale cuts on a huge overspend, Cameron's government seems to have one eye on the horizon and one on the stern. Not only does such a move seem interminably short sighted from a climate change viewpoint, but without expanding subsidies for renewables electricity prices will soar. Not only will this hit the pocket of UK consumers, but it will also strike a devastating blow to manufacturing.
In light of the recent announcement regarding the SSI works at Redcar which, already unable to compete with Chinese steel, is to shut with a loss of over 2000 jobs, one can only imagine the effect upon the UK economy were energy prices to double or treble. However, one shouldn't forget that while the UK battles to save its industries as coal approaches its last days as a national power source, Chinese steel (and aluminium) companies rely on coal power to secure their competitive advantage. Had they been pressured to opt for a cleaner source (like Russia and Iceland did with hydropower), Beijing steel and aluminium wouldn't have rammed through the UK's prized industrial champions.
As such, Cameron shouldn't have kow-towed to Xi Jinping just to secure a several billion-pound investment for Hinkley Point. Had he attempted to address the distorting effect fossil fuels have in the manufacturing chain, bringing China to the table at the pending COP21 summit in Paris to discuss ending fossil fuel subsidies and getting on board with the UK in actually expanding subsidies on renewables, to the benefit of all future generations, he may well have gone down in the history books as one of our greatest green leaders. Well, maybe.