UK has 'lost world climate leadership role' by axing domestic green policies


Leading scientists and former ministers say the country has undermined its record as a world leader on climate change and is 'moving backwards'

The UK has given up its leadership role at the UN climate talks in Paris and is "moving backwards" with a string of cuts to green domestic policies, according to Prof Anne Glover, the former chief scientific adviser to the European commission.

Her comments were endorsed by business people, NGOs, an ex-diplomat and two former ministers who are worried that the government is squandering the UK's international standing on climate issues.

David Cameron told a gathering of world leaders at the Paris climate talks last week that they would have to answer to their grandchildren if they failed to agree a deal that stopped dangerous warming. But since taking power in May his government has been criticised for taking the axe to a series of green policies.

"The UK does not have a leadership role, nor is it regarded to have a leadership role in Brussels," said Glover, who is vice-principal of the University of Aberdeen. "If we don't lead, who does? To me it looks like we're moving backwards."

Ed Davey, who was energy minister from 2012 to 2015, told the Guardian: "No wonder the UK is being criticised in Paris - it's the worst possible moment to undermine the UK's strong record on leading the global climate change debate.

"I doubt George Osborne will end up proud to tell his children and grandchildren of this monumental mistake - he's caving into the pressure of the likes of fossil fuel interests and [prominent climate sceptic] Lord Lawson, just as the rest of the world agreed to do the right thing," the Liberal Democrat said.

The former Tory environment minister Tim Yeo said that taken in combination, the changes to domestic green policies "raise serious doubts about how seriously Britain still takes the climate change agenda".

Since the election, the Conservative government has:

The UK has historically been seen as a leader on climate change internationally, becoming one of the first countries to produce a legally binding national framework to cut emissions with the Climate Change Act in 2008.

But John Ashton, who was the Foreign Office's top climate diplomat until 2012, said that it would be hard for UK diplomats to command the same authority in Paris with the government undermining green policies at home. "Rule one of diplomacy is, walk your talk: otherwise people stop listening," he said.

In article for the Guardian, he wrote: "In Paris last week David Cameron called for 'action today', not excuses tomorrow, on climate change. Back home, his ministers are already making excuses for what looks increasingly like a systematic repudiation of 10 years of successful action to build a prosperous low-carbon economy in Britain."

Both Ashton and Davey castigated the government for the decision to end subsidies for onshore windfarms, the cheapest form of renewable electricity in the UK, which they said would prove to be poor value for billpayers.

Davey said it was "monumentally stupid" to drop the zero-carbon homes rules, which the government's own statutory climate advisers also criticised last month.

"It's madness now to build things, knowing what we do about climate change, without going absolutely zero carbon. It's just illogical, and it's going to be far more expensive to retrofit. It's irrational."

Glover was also critical of the policy changes on energy efficiency and renewables. "These are choices [on energy efficiency] that government has made and I don't understand why they've made them. It's the same with subsidies to renewables, I don't get that either. Governments have historically always subsidised energy industries, so you would think you would want to subsidies the industries of the future rather than the industries of the past."

Jeremy Leggett, the founder and boss of SolarCentury, one of the UK's largest solar companies, said the government's approach has been a "scorched Earth assault" on low-carbon policies that had already resulted in hundreds of job losses in the solar industry.

"There were weaknesses in both the coalition and Labour governments' approaches. But at least they could turn up at climate summits without wearing a cloak of transparent hypocrisy."

Nick Molho, of the Aldersgate Group, which represents companies interested in the green economy, said: "We know from the international businesses that we work with that the weakening of our domestic clean energy commitments is getting noticed abroad. The government will rapidly have to come out with a clear plan to meet its own domestic climate commitments if its weight in international climate negotiations is not to be undermined."

The UK has slipped down several rankings on its attractiveness as a place to invest in clean energy in recent months, with its top sustainable energy rating of AAA being downgraded to AAB by the UN-accredited World Energy Council.

In September, it fell out of EY's top 10 countries most attractive for renewable energy for the first time, with EY citing "very reactionary policies being made almost in isolation of any evidence".

Conservative Lord Barker, who was climate minister under the coalition and a former adviser to Cameron on climate change, conceded the government had "rowed back" on renewable energy, but said it was necessary in the context of the "biggest cut in public spending of modern times."

But he said the recent promise by energy secretary Amber Rudd to phase out coal by 2025 outweighed what he said were smaller policy changes.

"Yes, you can pick out individual line items, sure. But does that alter the overall, macro picture? Climate change levy versus a moratorium, a ban on coal. Zero-carbon homes versus a world first on coal? I know which I think is more significant. The changes that have been announced, by and large, are detail or insignificant relative to this historical announcement about ending coal."

A spokesperson for the Department for Energy and Climate Change said: "The UK is playing its part in driving action on climate change and transitioning to a global low carbon economy; leading the world on taking coal off the grid and providing international climate finance aid."

NGOs were also critical of the government's actions. John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, told the Guardian: "With the exception of a commitment to phase out all coal-fired power stations within a decade, the year of the Paris climate talks has coincided with an unexpected onslaught on a wide range of schemes and policies designed to support the development and uptake of renewable energy and energy efficiency. The UK is now not on track to meet its overall 2020 EU renewable energy target. As a result, the UK government now sits at direct odds with its stated position as a global leader on tackling climate change."

Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said: "With UK carbon reduction policies in disarray, and its energy strategy speeding in the wrong direction, the government will struggle to be taken seriously on climate change in Paris. The UK government's credibility on climate change has plummeted since the general election."

He said that new policies introduced since the election in May had favoured fossil fuels over clean technology. "Huge tax breaks have been handed out to bolster oil and gas production, while policies aimed at boosting energy efficiency and renewable power have been shredded. The devastating floods hitting Britain should be a wake-up call to David Cameron and his ministers. There is massive support for renewable power in this country. It's time for ministers to listen to the science, listen to the public, and make tackling climate change a top priority."

This article first appeared at the Guardian

BusinessGreen is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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