The UK’s tri-party climate change pledge

The UK will have its first General Election in five years this May and although no political party has officially launched its campaign. Yet the media presence of the party leaders as well as other key figures is very much on the rise as the clamour for votes increases and the arguments and counter arguments get more heated.

Normally at this time we expect the main party leaders to be exchanging verbal blows as the desire to be seen as the best choice for the voters supersedes all else. So therefore it may come as surprise that the leaders of the three main UK political parties, current Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative), current Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats), and Ed Miliband (Labour) announced last weekend they had signed a joint declaration to tackle climate change regardless of the outcome of May’s election.

The declaration comes of the back of weeks of behind the scenes negotiations involving the three major parties brokered in part by non-government organisations including the Green Alliance, Christian Aid, and the Women’s Institute.

In the past all three leaders have clashed over environmental issues however together the following was pledged;

  • To seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below two degrees.
  • To work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets, in accordance with the Climate Change Act.
  • To accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient low-carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation.

A joint statement accompanying the pledge states “Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today. It is not just a threat to the environment, but also to our national and global security, to poverty eradication and economic prosperity.”

“Acting on climate change is also an opportunity for the UK to grow a stronger economy, which is more efficient and more resilient to the risks ahead. It is in our national interest to act and ensure others act with us.”

This announcement arrives at an extremely important point in time for the issue of climate change. Later in 2015 world leaders meet to set out a global climate change agreement and campaigners including scientists have warned that swift and rigorous action is required to combat the worse effects of climate change. It is thought that the pledge should go some way to alleviating the concerns of entrepreneurs and businesses.

This has been hailed as a victory in the fight against climate change and has been heralded as such across the green lobby and associated bodies however upon closer inspection is it all that it seems?

Point 1 of the pledge regarding the “legally binding climate deal” is the same as pre-existing EU policy and something which UK as a member state has to commit to, and already has. Also it does not specifically refer to the proposed United Nations climate talks due to take place in Paris in December where a similar deal is meant to be agreed although this may be omitted from the pledge in case any deal brokered in Paris is not legally binding.

Point 2 regarding UK carbon budgets is also a confirmation of current UK policy. The climate change act states that carbon budgets must be agreed according to definite time scales and with the advice of the Committee on Climate Change.

The final point is new policy for both the Conservatives and Labour however it does reflect government expectations that coal use for energy production will have to have ended by approximately 2030. Also unabated coal use will have ceased by 2027 according to projections from the Department for Energy and Climate Change. New unabated coal fired power stations are now banned in the UK and the Liberal Democrats have previously pledged to ban all unabated coal use by 2027 and along with Labour have agreed an electricity decarbonisation target for 2030.

With no new policies or even change of existing policies it can be easy to get cynical about the declaration however the UK hasn’t seen such a show of cross party unity on climate change since the 2008 UK Climate Act which was supported by all major parties and was passed with only five votes against.

It also should remove fears that a future Conservative Government may follow the UK Independence Party’s path towards climate change scepticism as well as silencing the calls to scrap the Climate Change Act from former Conservative Environment Minister Owen Paterson. The pledge should also prevent a review of future carbon budgets, which has happened previously.

The Committee of Climate Change stated the UK’s current generating capacity can meet all but the highest demands without coal and new research published last week stated the UK could generate their full requirement of electricity without coal by 2023.

A 100% phase out of coal would have a huge impact on emissions in the UK due to high levels of carbon dioxide produced in the generation process. In 2013 coal fired power stations emitted 114 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, approximately a quarter of all the UK’s CO2 emissions.

The pledge also carries international significance as well. The UK was the birthplace and home of the coal driven industrial revolution and it remains the third largest user of coal in Europe and 14th of the world. It has been stated the quickest most cost effective way to tackle climate change is for developed countries to stop using coal for electricity generation. The pledge confirms that UK will be following Denmark and Finland’s lead.

It also gives strength to green campaigners in other countries in their quest to get their governments to opt for a similar stance to that of the UK’s. Germany for example has previously stated that it cannot phase out coal use in the foreseeable future.

On the international stage the pledge has also already been used an example to others. In Australia for example Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt has stated that his country’s politicians should follow the UK lead and in the USA the Washington Post has compared the UK’s political leader’s unity favourably to the current climate change disagreement between Republicans and Democrats.

Former US vice president Al Gore hailed the declaration as “inspired leadership.” CEO of Unilever Paul Polman said “The importance of this pledge cannot be overstated. In this critical year, this sets a terrific example for other countries to follow” and CEO of Siemans Juergen Maier said “The low-carbon transition represents a major economic opportunity and this demonstration of cross-party support sends a clear message that the UK remains a good place for global companies to do low-carbon business.”

Felipe Calderon the former Mexican President said “The UK’s cross-party agreement serves as a positive example to other countries struggling to act on climate change. A focus on the simultaneous economic and climate benefits of low-carbon growth makes sense from any angle, and can help bridge typical partisan divides.”

We at ILI Energy support the cross party pledge. It can be easy to question the validity of a declaration which when broken down looks to be no more than a restating existing policy. However it has brought climate change to forefront of the political platform and has created a welcome level of discussion. Also the three major UK party leaders showing a unified stance and pledging to work together regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election will go a long way in reassuring potential investors in renewables providing a welcome boost to the industry.

The guaranteed phasing out of coal based electricity production will leave a deficit in our energy supply which must be filled by renewable energy alternatives. The opportunity for the UK’s next government to create a lasting legacy of clean energy generation is one which cannot be passed by.

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