UK will lose influence at UNFCCC if it fails to be honest over ambition

By Ed King

A lesson of the past six years is that our influence globally depends on what we are doing at home. What used to be seen as purely domestic policy is now also a critical part of our foreign policy. In Britain we must redouble our effort to build a low carbon economy that works and is seen to work.

Those words were part of a valedictory statement in June 2012 from the UK’s last Ambassador for climate change, John Ashton, to a Parliamentary Committee.

If they were meant as a warning then, they appear vaguely prophetic now. Britain could be on the verge of blowing its hard fought authority at the UN climate talks out of the window.

Ashton’s words illustrate why a row in the UK between the independent and influential Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and the government over its energy investment plans will be watched closely around the world.

The Committee warned yesterday that the UK’s increasingly likely ‘dash for gas’ as outlined by Chancellor George Osborne will break the law – specifically the 2008 Climate Change Act.

This set out a series of ‘carbon budgets’ the UK has to abide by, together with a final target of reducing emissions by 80% in 2050, relative to 1990 levels.

On Monday this week the UK’s minister for energy and climate change Greg Barker reaffirmed his commitment to those goals, and the 2010 Coalition Agreement, which called for support for an increase in the EU emission reduction target to 30% by 2020.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m issuing an optimistic clarion call because I don’t for a moment underestimate the difficulties, but it’s not impossible and given the number of people in the climate change world who say it is, it’s important to bear that in mind,” he said.

Coalition Agreement: Cameron and Clegg pledged ambitious support for green policies in 2010

Sitting alongside Barker, nodding in agreement was Pete Betts, Head of International Climate Change in the UK and a senior EU negotiator.

“We are very clear that existing ambition is not enough, we are not on a 2C trajectory and we need to do more,” he said. “The reason we are not doing more is ultimately political conditions in many of our partner countries in the world.”

Ever since the 2008 Climate Change Act was agreed with unusual cross party support, it has been a source of pride in the UK that the country leads the world in innovative low carbon legislation.

Other countries such as Mexico and the Philippines may have more ambitious laws on paper, but the checks and balances in the British system are impressive – as is the scrutiny of the CCC.

This was recognised by William Hague in an April op-ed in the Huffington Post, writing: “As Foreign Secretary, when trying to persuade other countries, both advanced and developing economies, to go green, it is a huge advantage to be able to point to the example we are setting at home.”

Ashton added in his statement: “Britain is a global player on climate change. We have far more influence than is generally recognised.”

This could be seen at COP17 in Durban, where Chris Huhne played an integral role within the EU negotiating team, standing in the middle of the infamous ‘huddle’ alongside Connie Hedegaard.

How valued this ‘influence’ is to the current government is debatable. Read James Murray’s lacerating analysis of UK domestic energy policymaking on BusinessGreen for an in-depth account of what has – and has not – been decided.

But there can be no doubt that if the UK continues along its trajectory of saying one thing and doing another, it will be called out as a fraud by countries around the world.

Greenwash

Ministers can recite the list of achievements – the Green Deal, the Green Investment Bank, the Greenest Government Ever, but when it comes to delivery they are currently falling short.

Some, such as Chancellor George Osborne, argue the country is moving too fast towards a low carbon economy. But is that accurate? Germany, South Korea and China are ahead of the UK in terms of renewables investment and energy efficiency projects. Yesterday Reuters reported that Ireland could export wind power to the UK by 2017.

Many feel the UK is actually starting to lag far behind, resting like its footballers on past glories, while competitors invest in the latest technologies. Within the government two sides are emerging, those like Hague who can see the economic opportunities renewables provide, and on the other side the Chancellor, apparently wedded to the theory of high-carbon growth.

Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the debate over economic and climate security is a false choice. They are as one. On Wednesday the International Energy Agency’s Chief Economist Fatih Birol said the world was currently on a trajectory to warm by six degrees celsius.

Remember two degrees is what scientists deem as ‘safe’. The science is clear, the required policies are clear – but the British government’s position is as clear as mud.

Like every England football manager over the last two decades, Ed Davey, Greg Barker and Pete Betts will head to a global gathering talking up their chances, hailing their preparation and raising hopes. But the events over the past few months will diminish their voices and decrease their leverage.

They would all do well to leave calls for ‘ambition’ and comments over ‘political conditions in partner countries’ at home. If they do not, given their government’s apparent lack of respect for its own ‘legally binding emissions treaty’ it would be little surprise if they were laughed out of the main plenary.

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