New Thinking Blog: What the decarbonisation vote says about Britain

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New Thinking Blog: What the decarbonisation vote says about Britain

CM cropped medWhat the decarbonisation vote says about Britain

Catherine Mitchell, IGov Team, 7th June, 2013

About Catherine:

On 4 June 2013, 290 MPs to 267 voted against an amendment to the Energy Bill to include a decarbonisation target of 30% by 2030. Such a target is in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) recommendation to meet the UK’s policy of 80% cut by 2050, which in turn relates to maintaining a 2 degree global rise in climate change. A 30% target would also fit with wider requirements to get Europe onto a pathway of meetings its targets, as well as helping to move the UK, Europe and the Globe on from the current inadequate climate change plans and policies in place, as forcefully explained by the IEA ‘s 2012 World Energy Outlook. The amended Bill now moves to the House of Lords for the final vote.

Those who voted against the amendment tend to reduce the argument to (1) we have a legally binding target of 80% cuts by 2050, we do not need another one, and (2) very few other countries have a legally binding target for 2030, so why should we? This is one of those negative, clever-clever arguments which are ultimately dishonest. It could for example be turned around and said ‘What is the problem with having a 2030 target if you intend to meet the 2050 target’. Both these statements avoid the ‘real’ issues that were involved in the vote.

The vote was really about what sort of energy future Britain should have, and how seriously Britain takes climate change. And as shown, a majority of our politicians voted for a ‘dirty’ business-as-usual energy system and gave two-fingers to the idea of climate policy. Without a legislative target by 2030, the current conventional fossil based energy system can continue for a while longer doing exactly what it has always done; with private incumbent interests rather than society’s long term benefit taking priority. It fits with a near-term energy policy based on increased natural gas, some potentially sourced from fracking, but without the constraints of achieving environmental goals (thereby reducing the pressure to improve our renewable energy deployment rate or energy system efficiency) or security and affordability goals.

It is true that not all countries have legally binding 2030 targets. And creating sufficient confidence for investment in an energy system is not just about targets, as usefully explained by the evidence provided by the company, Renewable Energy Systems, to the Energy Bill’s Scrutiny Committee. However, if you are a country like Britain which is trying to increase low carbon investment but has reduced investor confidence because of the complexity of the Energy Bill, then incorporating a decarbonisation target into the Bill becomes a necessity .

So, the only way that voting against the amendment makes sense is if MPs were voting for short-term, private interests or because of political pressure from their Whips. It does not make sense for societal interests of any timescale. No-one is saying that society’s transformation to a sustainable economy is not complex. There are always going to be winners and losers in this transformation but surely the point of Government, and our MPs, is to at least keep Britain on that pathway which is necessary for society, thereby allowing the private winners and losers to slug it out around that framework.

Decisions are made all the time by politicians but those relating to climate change are of a different order, because of its future impacts. 95% of climate change emissions in Britain derive from energy. Energy policy is central to our society’s wellbeing and we have to get it right. The different technological pathways we take are likely to cost us different amounts – the cheapest being the one with the smallest energy capacity on the system because it is energy capacity which drives the total cost of the system. Beyond this, when and where those costs fall differ substantially and have very different distributional impacts, and therefore very different impacts on the development of society and its economy. At root, a rapid move to an efficient energy system and a high proportion of renewable energy will negatively impact the current incumbents and their supply chain. For example, Denmark has a policy to reduce total energy demand by 50% by 2050 – that is reducing sales by 50% and providing energy from new technologies, and by new investors. That is a major change in who is making money out of the energy system. It is because of this that there is a huge fight going on about which technological pathway to follow, and this vote was part of that fight.

The vote also illuminates how ‘political’ energy policy is. There are those who argue that politics should be taken out of energy. But the institutions we have, the process by which rules and incentives of the energy system are agreed and changed is a result of a ‘political’ decision making process, as is shown by this week’s vote. The CCC was put in place so that it gives independent scientific advice to Government on what is needed for climate change – and the vote took no notice of it.

Another amendment voted down was the creation of an expert panel to scrutinise EMR. There is currently no oversight of government decisions in the climate and energy field. Somehow Britain has to create an institutional and governance structure in Britain which acknowledges the political nature of climate change and establishes some cross-party, transparent, evidence based process for establishing the institutions and policy framework we need to meet the challenges of climate change. This might be the creation of an Office of Carbon Responsibility in parallel to the CCC; it might also be separating out a public system operator from the private National Grid; it might be something else. Whatever, Britain has to implement something quickly. It cannot remain captured by the past if we are to have a better economic and environmental future.

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