George Osborne: The best barometer for success in Paris?

UK chancellor has taken an axe to country’s green policies in lead up to UN’s climate summit. His March 2016 budget will be an early chance to see if COP21 has worked

(Pic: HM Treasury/Flickr)

(Pic: HM Treasury/Flickr)

By Ed King

If and when the upcoming UN climate talks end with a deal, experts of all shapes and sizes will line up to explain why is it is – or is not – a success.

We’ll hear the famous 2C warming target mentioned, discussions over how legally binding the agreement will be, and fierce debates on whether the bell for coal has finally tolled.

Most analysts will focus on India and China – global economic powerhouses with growing carbon footprints.

One man who will likely be ignored is British chancellor George Osborne, the man steadily stripping away support for green power in the UK.

Widely credited as a political genius, Osborne’s record suggests he has had little time to heed green lobby warnings over climate change.

Cutting the UK’s huge structural deficit by 2020 is the priority, 2C of warming is not a short-term concern. But could Paris change his mind?

Since the May general election a raft of UK policies aimed at boosting cost effective renewable technologies, zero carbon homes and cleaner cars has been culled.

In their place, government has focused on gas and nuclear – the latter part of a billion-pound partnership with China – while advertising the inevitable closure of the country’s ageing coal plants.

This week you could add carbon capture to the list of dead policies. A £1 billion capital grant to competing companies aiming to make CCS a commercial reality was withdrawn.

The package of cuts, argued Treasury minister Greg Hands on Channel 4 News hours after the announcement, would save families £30 a year on their energy bills.

It was a shock even to Osborne’s cabinet colleagues. As recently as last week UK energy chief Amber Rudd declared CCS was a major part of her carbon cutting strategy. But late Tuesday she was informed support for CCS was over.

Report: UK scraps £1bn carbon capture fund in blow to green credentials

Experts are divided on whether the support for CCS was really worth it, and if the chancellor’s latest raid on climate policy is such a disaster.

Ben Caldecott from the centre-right Bright Blue think tank argues it was not. Dustin Benton from the Green Alliance says the move will have “seismic implications” for the country’s energy policy.

“Without rapid investment in energy efficiency and low carbon heat at scale, it is difficult to see how the UK will meet its Fourth Carbon Budget at least cost and on time,” says Nick Molho from the Aldersgate Group, which represents UK business.

Without CCS the country would rely on nuclear, renewables or “something that comes up” to keep the lights on and ensure emissions continue to fall warned Lord Deben, the Conservative peer who heads the government-funded Committee on Climate Change.

Report: Conservative UK climate chief defends green cuts

The mood music isn’t good from a country that has long proclaimed itself a climate change leader, and whose prime minister will undoubtedly tell delegates at the COP21 UN climate summit on Monday his government is Britain’s greenest ever.

David Cameron will remind fellow leaders he is increasing climate finance, investing in African solar and efforts to slow the destruction of tropical forests.

But is that enough? A climate risk assessment backed by the UK Foreign Office and published earlier this year warned rising temperatures would lead to crop failure, lethal heat waves, flooding, global sea level rise and extreme drought.

Africa and Asia are in the firing line but the study said the whole world would feel the ripples from impacts, with potential costs of inaction 5-20% of global GDP a year.

Back to Osborne. The message Greg Hands sent on Channel 4 News was that for the sake of £30 savings per family a year, the government would happily dismantle key parts of its low carbon strategy.

That short-term thinking will likely be challenged at the upcoming climate talks, especially if the 195 countries taking part agree both to a long term emissions goal.

Analysis: Envoys aim to surf wave of optimism at Paris climate talks

The We Mean Business coalition, which includes Starbucks, IKEA, Unilever and Tata, suggests the following target from countries would send a strong signal to the markets:

“To achieve the long-term temperature goal [of 2C] Parties collectively aim to reach net zero global greenhouse gas emissions well before the end of this century.”

It’s pushing for a tough new series of regular climate policy reviews.

“Each Party shall progressively strengthen the ambition of their successive nationally determined commitment every 5 years from 2020 onwards, informed by the global stocktake… by the best available science, until the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC and the objective of this Agreement are achieved.”

And the group also wants countries to agree successive commitments will be “at that Party’s highest possible level of ambition as of the time of its formulation”.

Business demands

These are among the key components in a deal that would offer a signal to markets that an energy revolution away from oil, gas and coal has started, says Mark Kenber, head of the Climate Group, another coalition of leading businesses.

“We need to ramp up the level of action and catalyse levels of investment… it’s a ripple that needs to turn into a wave that the business community can surf down into a low carbon future.”

It’s a wave that Abyd Karmali, head of climate finance at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, argues is already rolling in: “The Paris deal is beginning to manifest itself in the markets,” he contends.

Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, predicts Paris will be the moment when journalists wake up to the potency and spread of renewables: “The media is going to catch up,” he says.

The litmus test will be Paris.

Will a global pact signed by China, India, Brazil, the US and the EU convince Osborne that his green cuts could backfire long term if they comes at the cost of a growing global clean technology drive?

We’ll find out soon enough. The next UK Budget is slated for March 2016.

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