Paris - walking the walk (and that means you as well, Treasury...)


Labour's Alan Whitehead argues it is time for the Prime Minister to intervene and force the Treasury to deliver on the commitments the UK has made under the Paris Agreement

Well, what else is there to write about this week, other than to pen praise for the remarkable agreement on Climate Change that emerged from Paris? An agreement that won't solve the problem, or anywhere near it, but which at last sets out the conditions through which we can - across the world - really get to grips with the knotty issues of emission reductions on a fair and prudent basis. A deal which sets out, just as we have in the UK through the Carbon Budget system, a method of keeping on track and expanding efforts over the coming years.

The world is at last all facing in the same direction; and from a business point of view, this should signal to those who have been changing their practices and asset deployment that they, too, are facing in the right direction, and will probably prosper far more in the medium term by continuing to align business practice with a low carbon economy.

Ah - but what about government, though? Comment has not been slow to arrive in the immediate aftermath of the agreement that Britain has signed up to: if we are enthusiastically endorsing an ambitious path of carbon reduction, then we ought to get our domestic practice in line with our COP rhetoric. And whilst it is true that the Carbon Budget way of doing things means that there is a range of alternative paths open to any government to meet each carbon budget, the eventual aim is indeed to meet each budget. Tearing away at the previously agreed methods of getting there, without stating what else might be done instead, is not a very grown up way of meeting targets or budgets. We have seen in the run up to Paris a series of announcements, on wind, on solar, on low carbon homes, on climate levies and now on Carbon Capture and Storage, that suggest that government is doing just that. We await the introduction, with a flourish, of the alternative road map that will replace the route obliterated by these changes.

My fears that there is currently no such alternative marinating in government, though, are stoked by the way in which the various announcements have been made. They have effectively been made largely by one government department, the Treasury, without even telling the government department that supposedly has the key responsibility for all this (the clue is in DECC's full name). DECC has then, in the name of collective responsibility, had to spin out ever more implausible rationalisations of what has been forced upon it.

The most recent 'announcement' - that of ending the competition to get Carbon Capture and Storage off the ground in the UK - is perhaps the most egregious. Virtually up to the moment the announcement was made (clearly by Treasury), DECC was briefing publicly and privately about its strong support for Carbon Capture and Storage, was holding regular 'forum' meetings for industry, chaired by a minister, and had even made an agreement with the Canadian Government to share know-how and developments.

And then - BOOM - a day before the Climate Change Committee pronounced upon the key role that it envisaged Carbon Capture and Storage playing in the fifth carbon budget (not only for power generation, but for the maintenance of key heavily-emitting industries such as cement and steel) suddenly the whole edifice was - apparently unbeknown to DECC until the very last moment - pulled down.

Carbon Capture and Storage looks to be vital to Britain's commitment to low carbon energy and industry over the next two decades. But here we now are, just as Paris pronounces, without any way of advancing it - other than, at a much later date, perhaps buying-in or borrowing technology from someone else who hasn't pulled the plug on development.

This kind of government dislocation is simply not a coherent way of approaching the UK's agreed commitments under the Paris Agreement. No amount of carefully-crafted pathway documents from DECC will make up for the vandalism of one department, supplied with the means to carry out climate sabotage, and with apparently precious little interest in a subject that rightly consumes most other departments.

It surely is time, when David Cameron has a moment to draw breath from his interminable round of supplication in front of various European governments, to intervene centrally from No. 10, and develop a speedy cross-government strategy for appraising climate measures and their alternatives, within the framework of the international agreement that he himself endorsed so warmly in Paris. And if that means that Treasury has to be placed in 'special measures,' as the government seems keen to do elsewhere, then so be it.

Dr Alan Whitehead is Labour MP for Southampton Test and shadow energy and climate change minister

This article is part of BusinessGreen's Road to Paris hub, hosted in association with PwC.

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