Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The recent actions of the British government reveal a contempt for the principles so loudly proclaimed in Paris climate agreement

Some 195 countries came together in Paris last December to sign a ground breaking agreement on the need to address climate change.

Prime Minister David Cameron was one of those foremost in urging the need to act but looking at the Conservative government’s record at home it is difficult not to wonder whether the apparent gap between rhetoric and reality could expose the Achilles heel of the whole Paris agreement?

The main achievement of the UN sponsored Paris Climate Agreement in December was that 195 nations came together and agreed that climate change was a major danger to the future of the world and something needs to be done about it.

Big deal, those might say, who have recognised the damage being done across the world as a result of climate change over recent years. This has seen changing weather patterns, bringing more extremes of weather such as flooding, drought and tornados. The most recent example in this country has been the terrible floods in the north of Britain.

The agreement reached in Paris saw the nations recognising the need to keep the warming of the planet to no more than 2 degrees, with an ambition to stay at 1.5 degrees or under.

The individual nations commitment to limiting carbon emissions come under the Nationally Determined Contribution , which at present levels will see warming levels of 2.7 to 3.5 degrees, causing much damage. So there is a lot to be done.

The financial commitments made in Paris mean that developed countries are pledging £65 billion a year to developing countries in order that they can develop, without destroying the planet.

The need for the funding is most easily illustrated with the case of India, whose government is seeking to ensure access for the 300 million of its 1.2 million population who lack electricity. The cheapest way to ensure such access is via coal powered power stations, which emit high levels of carbon dioxide.

So in order for India to develop in a way that is environmentally sustainable, using renewable technologies, rather than the damaging fossil fuel coal, extra funding subsidy will be needed.

Indeed, according to scientists, 80% of the fossil fuels, like coal and gas, that exist around the world need to remain in the ground if the Paris targets are to have any chance of being met.

The Paris agreement also includes stipulations that see participants reviewing and ratcheting up their commitment to reduce emissions every five years – this will mean increasing the financial commitments of developed to developing nations. Signficantly, in the second half of the century, the commitments see nations moving to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, not just ensuring that what is already there is not added to as at present.

There are many perceived problems with the Paris climate agreement, such as the exclusion of areas like aviation, agriculture and shipping, which all contribute large amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Critics also point to the lack of agreement on an international global tax on greenhouse gas emissions, while pointing out that there is no attempt being made to cut subsidies to the damaging fossil fuels. It is estimated that one third of emissions between 1980 and 2010 were driven by such subsidies.

So the feeling on the agreement generally is that it was good in expressing the collective will of the world to address climate change but lacking somewhat in binding criteria. Strong on rhetoric but weak on the actuality.

Perhaps the potential weakness of the agreement can be illustrated by a look at the recent behaviour of the British government.

Prime Minister David Cameron went to Paris making powerful pronouncements on the dangers of climate change, asking “what we would have to say to our grand children if we failed.”

The PM boasted that: “Britain is already leading the way in work to cut emissions and help less developed countries cut theirs and this global deal now means that the whole world has signed to play its part in halting climate change.”

But then he returns to the UK, where he slashes subsidies to the emerging renewables energy market, whilst agreeing to support fracking for shale gas across the UK and the flagging nuclear industry. The UK also provides £6 billion in subsidy to fossil fuels.

Ever since coming to power last May, the government has seemed determined to destroy the renewable energy sector in the UK. First, it removed subsidy support from one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy - on shore wind turbines. Then it announced that there would be 87% cuts in subsidy to solar panels. More than 500,000 households now generate their energy from this source.

In the event, following much lobbying, the government agreed that the cut would be 65% to the subsidies for solar. It also admitted that the cuts could see 18,700 jobs lost out of the 32,000 jobs in the industry.

This all came at a time when renewable sources of energy provided 25% of electricity last year.

By contrast, the government has bent over backwards to help both the nuclear and fracking industries. Whilst it taps into the austerity agenda to justify cutting renewable subsidy, no such criteria applies to nuclear power.

The nuclear industry has never operated without subsidy in its 60 year history. So the government has no problem paying out £25 billion to develop a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point, with a guarantees that £92.50 per unit of electricity – more than double the present price - will be paid for the first 35 years of operation.

Hinkley will supply 7% of the UK electricity requirement but will not be up and running for another 15 years. The Chinese government will take the lead role on the Hinkley, as well as additional nuclear plants at Bradwell and Sizewell.  

Then there is the fracking industry, where the government has provided tax breaks for the companies involved in exploration. It has also relaxed planning provisions, now allowing companies to frack, almost anywhere, including the national parks. This comes at a time when the Prime minister has just committed to the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

The rationale for the vast chasm between government rhetoric in Paris versus reality at home is difficult to fathom.

Oliver Hayes, political campaigner at Friends of the Earth, sees the government plugging into its austerity agenda to justify cutting “the green crap” as Cameron so elegantly put it a couple of years ago, referring to costs on energy bills linked to sustainable developments. “He is pandering to the right of his party, that he knows hates renewables,” said Oliver.

But there is also the threat that the explosion in the renewable market represents to the energy companies and their ability to make profits. Once technologies like wind turbines or solar panels are put in place they can produce energy from the sun and wind, so there is no power station that can be controlled. “You can’t package up, or control, millions with panels on their roofs in the same way as it is possible to control power station output,” said Oliver.

The great irony is that partly as a result of events in Paris, the renewable industry is likely to continue to grow internationally to the point where it is estimated within five years it will become the cheapest source of energy. At that time there will be no need for subsidy. UK consumers will flock to have these technologies fitted, the loser being British industry and workers because as a result of the government’s actions its capacity will have reduced substantially. This provides a scenario whereby the technology will be provided and installed almost entirely by foreign companies.
Daisy Sands, Greenpeace Head of Energy campaign said: "'It's positive that there was a deal achieved in Paris, but this historical deal will only be truly meaningful if it acts as a springboard for real action. It's high time for UK government to follow through their pledge with concrete action. Right now, the UK's energy policy is out of synch with the government's climate rhetoric.'

The contrary nature of the British government’s utterances versus its actions have been noted internationally and do nothing for the credibility of the country. The hope must be though that the other countries who have signed up in Paris do not follow a similar course, saying one thing on the world stage whilst behaving contrarily at home.

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