7 December 2015: UK climate and energy policy: small steps forward, large steps backwards

The last few weeks have been miserable for those wanting progress from the UK on climate protection. The advance represented by Energy and Climate Secretary Amber Rudd’s ‘reset’ speech on 18 November has been pretty comprehensively destroyed by Chancellor George Osborne. I try to remain optimistic and identify reasons to be cheerful, but on UK climate policy I can’t see many at present.

In her speech, Rudd supported both nuclear and renewables. And she accepted the need for technological innovation:

“Let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t have all the answers to decarbonisation today. We must develop technologies that are both cheap and green. This means unleashing innovation.”

She promised more subsidy for offshore wind, provided that the industry can deliver what is has promised on cost reduction. On nuclear, she said that the government will support the three new reactors currently in the pipeline – Hinkley, Wylfa and Moorside – but also support research into advanced nuclear reactors. She said, correctly:

“innovation is not just about trying things out in a lab and magically discovering a new energy source. It is also about testing things at scale. We learn from doing.”

This was an encouraging speech, though there was too much enthusiasm for gas, which is better than coal but not low-carbon enough unless it has carbon capture and storage (CCS). I ended my blog on the reset by writing:

So it’s two-and-a-half cheers for Rudd for now. It may be three cheers after Chancellor George Osborne announces his Comprehensive Spending Review next week. Or it may not.” (See http://climateanswers.info/2015/11/19-november-2015-well-done-amber-rudd/)

On 23 November Weinberg Next Nuclear, the pro-nuclear charity for which I work two days a week, published our report on ‘Why nuclear innovation is needed’ (See http://www.the-weinberg-foundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/why-nuclear-is-needed-final-23-Nov.pdf). In the press release, I wrote:

“Chancellor George Osborne should announce in this week’s Comprehensive Spending Review that the government will fund prototype demonstrations of advanced nuclear reactors. Existing nuclear reactors are already safe and low-carbon, so some more should be built. Future reactors could be even safer and even lower carbon, so prototypes should be constructed.” (See http://www.the-weinberg-foundation.org/2015/11/23/why-nuclear-innovation-is-needed/)

In the spending review on 26 November, Osborne did promise £250 million for research on nuclear innovation. (See http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-UK-sets-aside-funds-for-ambitious-nuclear-research-and-development-program-26111501.html). This was very welcome, though promised spending on clean energy research is not always delivered (see below).

Less welcome was Osborne’s announcement that £700m of savings would be made by amendments to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), the scheme to subsidise the expansion of solar thermal, heat pumps and bioenergy heating. However, subsequent announcements reveal that RHI spending will actually increase. The budget for 2016-17 will be £640 million, a 49% increase from the 2015-16 level. For 2020-21, a budget of £1.5 billion is promised. (See http://www.iceenergy.co.uk/renewable-heat-incentive-update/ )

So the Chancellor had a positive story to tell on a climate policy, but chose instead to talk about cuts. That suggests that he does not regard climate change as important. This impression is reinforced by five other policies which undermine climate action:

  1. The Government cancelled the UK’s £1bn CCS demonstration programme, which would have funded one large scale coal CCS demo and one gas one. Osborne did not even think this worth mentioning in his speech: the Treasury just issued a press release after he had sat down. That shows disrespect for the companies who had already invested significantly in the projects. The companies are understandably furious.
  2. The Government slashed spending on energy efficiency for homes. According to the Association for the Conservation of Energy:

“On the same day that official figures reveal that last winter’s Excess Winter Deaths were at their highest level for 15 years, ACE has described as ‘scandalous’ the Chancellor’s announcement of a 42% cut in the help available to households living in dangerously cold homes.” (See http://www.ukace.org/2015/11/press-release-scandalous-winter-deaths-surge-but-chancellor-slashes-help-for-cold-homes-by-42/)

  1. The Government axed tax relief for community energy projects, by introducing a late amendment to its own finance bill going though parliament. (See http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2432424/government-axes-tax-relief-for-community-energy-projects). No consultation, and not much said in defence of this measure. What happened to the Big Society?
  2. Alongside a policy to give local councils a veto over onshore wind farms, central government has announced that it will decide planning applications for fracking itself. I support fracking (see http://climateanswers.info/2015/09/25-september-2015-we-need-evidence-based-campaigning/). I do not support hypocrisy. The Government argues that it will take decisions on fracking because it is an issue of national importance. So is renewable energy of no national importance?
  3. The Government is fiddling the figures on climate finance. It is taking money from the overseas development budget, allocating it to climate finance and claiming that this is new money (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35010333?utm_content=buffer325b4&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer). The 2010-15 Coalition government met the internationally-agreed target of 0.7% of GDP being spent on overseas development. Prime Minister David Cameron deserves personal credit for this. He also has a track record of commitment to climate action. The fact that his government is now avoiding its climate finance commitment by raiding the overseas development budget suggests either that Cameron has lost interest or that he is no longer able to control his less progressive chancellor.

How does Amber Rudd feel about the UK’s current climate policy? We don’t know, because she turned down an invitation from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to go on this morning and talk about it. Turning down the Today programme is not something that British politicians do voluntarily. The only plausible explanation is that her de facto boss in the Treasury told her to.

There was some coverage on the Paris climate summit on Today. And lots of coverage of Storm Desmond, which has broken many UK weather records. A month’s rainfall fell in a day in Cumbria. I didn’t hear any discussion of a possible link between Storm Desmond and climate change. OK, a storm is weather, not climate. No one can say that a particular weather event is caused by climate change. But there are plenty of peer-reviewed scientific papers warning that global warming will lead to more extreme weather. More extreme weather is happening, across the world and in the UK. Is our government capable of joining the dots?

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