It’s been four months since Prime Minister David Cameron’s new majority government came into power and there are just three months before the Paris climate conference. So, what do we know about the UK’s contribution to the COP21 international climate change negotiations? Turns out, not much.
As world leaders meet in Bonn this week to whittle down country proposals for action into a concise document they can all agree on, it seems Britain's actions are speaking louder than words.
Last week saw what many fear to be the death knell for Britain’s solar industry as the government set out its plan to cut subsidies for small scale solar PV in the UK.
Meanwhile, the largest new oil and gas field discovered in the North Sea for a decade just got production approval. The Culzean field has about a quarter of a billion barrels of oil – this is equivalent to 108 megatonnes of CO2, or, a quarter of annual UK emissions.
So how does the government’s gamble with greenhouse gas emissions at home translate at the international negotiating table?
Documents released by DECC and published on DeSmog UK show that Amber Rudd, head of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), has met with international counterparts five times (not including this week’s Bonn meeting) since May 2015, in Berlin, Luxembourg and Beijing, to discuss the COP21 climate targets.
And, well, that’s about all we know. According to the (very limited) information released, the department acknowledged that they hold briefing materials that were provided to the Secretary of State ahead of these meetings but have withheld all of these.
It seems that they are holding their climate cards close to their chest. So much for Cameron’s call for a “complete revolution in transparency”. This leaves us to decipher the stream of mixed messages being sent by the new Conservative-majority Government: What exactly is its priority?
Rudd says the UK wants a “strong, ambitious, rules-based agreement that makes the shift to a clean global economy irreversible.”
“Governments can set the direction, set the vision, set the ambition,” she says. So, if the government is serious about addressing climate change, what steps is it taking to ensure the UK is in a position to meet its targets?
In July, Rudd made her first appearance before the reshuffled Energy and Climate Change Committee to discuss DECC’s priorities. “Carbon reduction targets are more essential than renewable energy targets,” she announced.
Prioritising carbon reduction isn’t a bad thing, but when this statement is followed by an avalanche of cuts to renewable subsidies throughout July and August, you start to question how exactly the government hopes to cut emissions.
This sends a “worrying signal” about the UK’s commitment to tackling climate change ahead of the Paris climate conference, warned Angus Macneil, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee.
Fracking and Nuclear
“Low carbon” energy seems to be the answer, as Rudd puts it. Chief among these is fracking for shale gas and nuclear energy.
But, so far, neither of these options is being implemented as quickly as the government had hoped. Hinkley Point C is facing ongoing legal challenges and, should it be approved, it will be years before it’s up and running. Meanwhile, despite Cameron’s best efforts to “go all out for shale”, the UK still hasn’t seen any shale gas extraction since 2011.
Plus, as Lib Dem MP Tim Farron argues, to meet the UK’s Climate Change Act objectives, we must decarbonise power generation almost entirely by 2030; any large-scale extraction of shale gas is “a minimum of ten to fifteen years away”.
“If these targets mean anything, we shouldn’t be planning to use significant volumes of gas for power at all, regardless of its source,” he wrote.
And, with the gas price falling, nuclear and fracking are not necessarily more cost-effective options compared to onshore wind or efficiency measures.
All of this to say, the contradictions are astounding in statements calling for climate action yet attacking renewable energy in favour of options that have yet to be realised. Rudd is correct when she says: “If we don’t act, it will become increasingly hard to maintain our prosperity, protect our people and conserve our countryside. The economic impact of unchecked climate change would be profound.”
So, is the government putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to securing a deal in Paris? We may not know until it’s too late.