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From Paris to Parliament: Is there a climate for action?

The Paris Agreement reached at the COP21 late last year was a big success, and the UK played an important, constructive role in that. But the UK is going backwards in policy terms with respect to greenhouse gas emissions.

That was the general message I took away from an event I attended last week in Parliament on behalf of the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute. In truth, this wasn't a big surprise to me. But what did strike me was the unanimity of the panellists who spoke: an MP, a scientist, an economist, a financial advisor, and an activist.* They were all more or less in agreement about the following:

  1. Paris was a big deal. There are certainly all kinds of things to be worried and dissatisfied about, and it would have been better to have had an agreement like this 20 years ago. (If you add up all the commitments national governments have made, we're nowhere near keeping climate change under 2˚.) But it really does give us a much better shot than we had beforehand. In an important sense, to quote the scientist, December 2015 was when humanity really decided that climate change was "a problem we agreed to do something about".
  2. Above all, Paris did two crucial things. First, it established a mechanism for making countries accountable to each other, and for making governments more accountable domestically. Second, it provided firms and investors with a clear steer: the world economy is going to decarbonise in this century. The private sector will appreciate the implications: some power stations will have to be decommissioned early; governments will sooner or later have to introduce policies favourable to renewables and unfavourable to fossil fuels; "climate risk" is going to be a huge issue for the financial services sector.
  3. And the private sector is not the problem. In a lot of ways, big companies are ahead of the government, and many are looking to governments to get with the programme and establish sensible, long-term targets and regulations. I found it striking that even an activist from Friends of the Earth and the former leader of the UK Green Party seemed to feel this way.
  4. Cutting carbon isn't bad for the economy. Again, I wouldn't have been surprised by a couple of the panellists saying this. But for all five to agree was impressive. They made the point in different ways. The scientist for example talked about employment growth in the clean energy sector, while the activist noted that greenhouse gas emissions have come way down in the UK in the last 25 years even as total economic activity has grown.
  5. Both of the UK's major political parties--i.e., the Conservative Party included--have been positive forces shaping the global climate regime, and UK governments led by both parties have advised other countries on how to get their emissions down. This message too was striking to me.

All of the above just confirmed things I've thought for a while: That decarbonising is completely economically doable, and the reasons we're not doing it fast enough are just political. And that at this point (in some contrast perhaps to 10 or 20 years ago) the private sector isn't much of a problem politically.

What remains perplexing to me then is why the current government is not just doing so little, but actually going backwards--another more-or-less consensus view among the panellists. For example, revenues from environmental taxes have been flat or declining for years as a proportion of all tax revenues--directly contrary to what mainstream economics recommends. In the housing sector, the government has weakened energy-efficiency standards and killed off its flagship scheme to encourage better insulation. Subsidies for renewables have been cut (though the economic case for such subsidies is more equivocal). And this year's Energy Bill is strangely silent on climate change.

So... What's with the current government? I'm sure some of them are climate sceptics, but I wouldn't expect a majority are (and I don't think David Cameron is). Are they overestimating the economic costs of taking action on climate change? Maybe. But my best guess is that green issues just aren't a big concern for them personally, and they don't see the British public as too interested or supportive. As such, climate change is just constantly slipping down the agenda.

We may soon know more. The panellists noted that a number of big decisions are coming up in the UK within the next year, and in a sense this country will provide the first test of the Paris Agreement. Notably, there are questions about the climate implications of the Energy Bill, next month we will find out about funding for renewables post-2020, and we will see a new Carbon Plan by the end of the year. Let's hope for some more positive news on those fronts.

* The panellists were Caroline Lucas (MP, former leader of the Green Party); Sir David King (formerly the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor, and now Special Representative for Climate Change); Prof Michael Jacobs (various think tank and academic affiliations); Kirsty Hamilton (various finance affiliations); and Simon Bullock (Friends of the Earth). The event was a seminar of the All Party Climate Change Group (APPCCG) and Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG).

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Malcolm Fairbrother, from the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.  


Malcolm Fairbrother

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