Why post-Brexit UK can be a climate champion

Ex No.10 advisor says Brussels has held back British climate ambitions: without its oppressive regulations carbon emissions can fall further and faster

(Pic: Pixabay)


A UK without the steadying hand of Brussels could still be a green leader, says David Cameron’s former climate advisor.

In an essay on Whitehall’s future low-carbon policies, Stephen Heidari-Robinson argues Europe’s influence on the green sector has been minimal, even negative.

Released from restrictive policies like the 2020 renewables target, which he argues does not address the real climate killer – coal – the country’s emission-busting aims can fly.

A high domestic carbon price (relative to the EU) and fast growing offshore wind and solar sectors are reason to be confident he says, while adding new nuclear is essential to meet post-2030 climate goals (note: the UK’s nuclear plans are in chaos).

Nor does he see a conflict between leaving the EU and deepening clean energy supplies through interconnecting power lines: these are essentially bilateral deals.

Still, this is optimism laced with realism: prime minister Theresa May’s chief advisor hates the climate change act and much public debate is backed by “factless assertions” that distort government thinking and its efforts to develop policies.

It’s well worth a read in full. Below is the Brexit section:

“Despite many claims to the contrary, the EU is not the driving force for climate change action in the UK: our commitment is home grown, rooted in the Climate Change Act, and monitored by an independent British Climate Change Committee.

“As is well known, carbon pricing in the European Trading Scheme (ETS) is too low to make much difference to the problem.  The UK’s own Carbon Price Floor, which more than quadruples the ETS price to £18 ($24), has had the positive effect of disadvantaging coal versus gas, and is a nice earner for the Treasury, but otherwise has limited impact.

“Once coal is out of the way, or if coal can be restricted and phased out through other means, the carbon price should be reduced, as it adds unnecessary costs of consumers and business.  By contrast, the way in which we have delivered the UK’s impressive decarbonization performance in electricity generation is not by dis-incentivizing other energy sources through taxes, but by paying renewables technologies the higher prices they needed (“contracts for difference”).  This has provided a much surer funding model, given the glut of hydrocarbons and collapse in their prices.

“The EU’s 2020 renewables targets – which only focus on one aspect of decarbonization and ignore ending coal, building nuclear and overall efficiency – have been generally unhelpful, allowing EU countries to build out renewables while carbon emissions fail to fall.  For example, between 2010 and 2015, Germany has increased the proportion of renewables by 17% to 33% but but its carbon emissions today are the same as they were five years ago, due to the phasing out of nuclear power and an increase in coal and lignite burning.

“Brexit provides an opportunity to strip away these unhelpful EU renewables targets, together with the absurd system whereby the UK’s performance in decarbonizing electricity generation and industry is reported as a calculated share of the EU’s, making us look like we are doing worse than we are.  What really matters is that less actual carbon goes into the atmosphere.  This is, of course, not an argument for isolationism.  Climate change is a global problem, the UK only accounts for only about 1% of global emissions, and we will only be able to solve the problem by working in concert with others.

“Of course, potential investor uncertainty following Brexit is a challenge that needs to be addressed here as elsewhere.  Foreign investors in nuclear and offshore wind will need to balance lower revenues from a weaker pound, on the one hand, against more investment bang for their buck and lower local input costs, on the other.  This is a good reason to localize more of the supply chain in the UK than has historically been the case – creating jobs in the regions, for example at the Siemens factory in Hull.

“With interconnectors (big wires connecting European countries which help manage the challenges of intermittent renewables by spreading capacity across countries), regulatory deals will need to be struck with individual EU countries.  But there are several reasons to be optimistic: all previous interconnectors have been one-off country-to-country deals; the issue is more technical than political; non-EU countries are also involved (Iceland, Norway); and the UK has been leading on energy market reform in the EU anyway.  More challenging is securing export markets for the UK’s low emissions vehicles (we currently manufacture a quarter of the total in Europe).  This should be one (among many other) objectives in the trade negotiations.

“Finally, Brexit has of course led to a wholesale change in government personnel and a merger of the old Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.  The selection of ministers for the key posts provides reason to be confident that the UK’s successful decarbonization strategy will continue: Philip Hammond as Chancellor, Greg Clark as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Nick Hurd as the Climate Change Minister have all made public commitments to combatting climate change.

“Furthermore, after Brexit and before changing roles, Amber Rudd, the former Secretary of State for DECC and now Home Secretary (Interior Minister), ensured that the government committed itself to the challenging targets of Carbon Budget 5, entailing a 57% reduction in UK greenhouse emissions versus 1990 by 2030.  On the other hand, the new PM’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, has called the UK’s climate change act “a unilateral and monstrous act of self-harm… inflicted upon industrial Britain.”

“As highlighted throughout this article, there are areas where the structure of the act, and the actions taken as a result of it, could be improved.  However, let’s hope that we can convince Nick and others that, if done the right way, decarbonization can be an opportunity for UK industry not a burden.”


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