The UK and climate action

Over the past decade, climate action has been increasingly high on the British political agenda and the UK has been one of the strongest voices calling for policies to curb emissions. The UK has an ambitious and legally-binding framework to reduce emissions, and last year carbon dioxide emissions were 36% below 1990 levels. This is the lowest level since 1894, which is definitely something to celebrate. From an international perspective, UK representatives played a valuable and widely respected role as part of the EU delegation in Paris, which helped to secure the significant Paris Climate Agreement.

Now that the UK’s diplomatic capacity has arguably been diminished and its influence in Europe weakened since the referendum result last June, Brexit and the Brexit-sparked snap general election are no excuses for UK leaders to roll back ambition and undo progress to date. In fact, they should do the opposite. Climate and environmental protection are global goals requiring a combination of national and international action, and whether we are in or out of the EU, the UK should continue to project its ambition to secure a sustainable future. We are concerned that our leadership here is beginning to slip. Irrespective of the General Election result, three government priorities are clear.

Keeping high environmental standards

Post-Brexit, environmental standards to protect against degradation of the natural environment must remain strong. Take air quality, for example – a recent government report on particulate emissions showed that UK sources account for only half of the total particulate emissions that make their way into the air we breathe. This means that we can only solve half the problem on our own, and therefore must work closely with our European neighbours to reduce the other half. The UK Government’s planned phase-out of coal is part of the wider EU movement to reduce coal use over the next decade. The health impacts of this move are substantial, and the Government’s approach is to be applauded. We now need a similar approach to both climate and environmental protection across a wider set of government policies. Encouragingly, there does seem to be support within the Conservative party for ensuring we stay strong on environmental protection.

Climate and environmental protection are global goals requiring a combination of national and international action

A recent Bright Blue poll found that most Conservatives support maintaining or strengthening EU environmental regulations after Brexit. Such evidence of widespread support should not be lost on the next Government.  

Working towards a low-carbon economy

Decarbonisation must cross the whole economy. Although we have made real progress on decarbonisation of the electricity sector – in 2015, a quarter of electricity came from renewables – the same cannot be said for transport and heat. Together, these two sectors account for two-thirds of UK greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonising them has always been difficult. There is a large gap between what current policies are set to achieve and the UK’s legally binding carbon target.

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The expectation was that the Government’s formal plan to reduce emissions would be published last year. Delay after delay continues to raise concerns, primarily surrounding the lack of any real reasons. Is it because government leadership on climate is weakening? Is it because the climate will be a bargaining chip as part of a Brexit negotiation? Is the solution just proving too difficult to find behind closed doors? Or is it a combination of all three? Although the election will result in yet more delays, a credible plan is essential, and details should be shared as soon as possible.

Decarbonisation of the whole economy is undoubtedly a real challenge. Having an open discussion with the public on this is really important as it fundamentally affects all of our futures and cannot be seen as a sideshow to other policies. Addressing climate change has to be a fundamental part of any government’s leadership and approach to an Industrial Strategy, irrespective of Brexit.

No regrets approach to renewables

Whichever approach is taken, the growth of renewable generation capacity must remain fundamental. The latest stats show that the UK is lagging far behind in meeting our EU 2020 renewables target of 15% of energy from renewables. In light of Brexit, this could encourage a government to simply abandon such targets. Instead, UK renewable capacity should be set down in stretching, yet achievable, new domestic targets to help focus policy initiatives.

Now is not the time to be maintaining policies that curb investment in onshore wind, the cheapest forms of renewable generation, or doggedly withholding legislation to promote energy efficiency measures in our buildings. Now is the time to be bold. Now is the time to take up the baton once more and lead the UK into a low-carbon economy that will benefit everyone.

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