The Independent View: Lib Dems must defend UK climate targets

Flooding in Cedar Rapids, IAThe past months have seen an upsurge of environmental concern. Following the wettest winter ever, and the starkest warnings yet from scientists about the perils of climate change, 23% of the public named ‘the environment’ as the most important issue facing Britain – higher than at any time since the late 1980s.

But, rather astonishingly, despite mounting evidence of the urgency for acting on global warming, there are moves within Government to weaken UK climate targets.

Liberal Democrats – whose last general election manifesto was the greenest of the three main parties – must make it clear they won’t let this happen, and force the Coalition to stick to its carbon-cutting targets

Lib Dems and the Climate Change Act

The Climate Change Act (2008) was rightly hailed as a world-leading piece of legislation.

It introduced long-term certainty for investment, offered protection for households from ever-rising fossil fuel prices, and made Britain leaders in a world grappling with this existential threat.

Liberal Democrats played a central role in shaping the Act, insisting emissions cuts matched the scientific evidence of the threat, not short term political expediency.

The Act requires the UK to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, with a series of five-yearly ‘carbon budgets’ to act as interim targets to ensure we stay on course.

One of the Coalition’s early (and too few) green successes was accepting the advice the independent Committee on Climate Change’s advice and signing the fourth carbon budget (2023-2027) into law. Much of the credit must go to then Secretary of State Chris Huhne, who argued hard for its ratification, despite opposition from the Chancellor.

Threat to UK climate targets

But this success came with a catch – a sop to George Osborne that the budget would be reviewed in 2014.

That review is now reaching its final phase, and Osborne continues to push for a serious weakening – despite no justification for doing so. The Committee on Climate Change, which was asked to assess economic and environmental factors for watering the budget down, categorically opposed this in detailed advice set out last December.

Backing for climate action

It’s not just environmentalists urging ministers to stand firm. Earlier this year leading companies including Unilever, Kingfisher and Shell wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to end uncertainty about the budget and leave it untouched – or risk further damaging investor certainty.

Weakening the budget would also send a poor signal ahead of crucial international climate negotiations later this year.

A Rubicon Lib Dems mustn’t cross

There is hope.

Carbon budgets can only be cut if the ‘Quad’ (Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander) agree and Parliament votes it through. And that would require Liberal Democrat MPs to march through the division lobbies.

The environment is a key area where the Liberal Democrats have lost trust. But as we head towards the next general election there’s still time to regain some of this lost eco-credibility.

Liberal Democrat MPs must stand up and be counted – and tell the Quad there’s no way any weakening of the carbon budget will be voted through Parliament.

* Andy Atkins is Executive Director at Friends of the Earth.

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14 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 6th Jun '14 - 9:24am

    “offered protection for households from ever-rising fossil fuel prices” Gas prices in the US have slumped as extra supplies enter the market. New recovery techniques are increasing the reserves of oil. There are gigantic coal reserves.

    When you say things which are blatantly untrue it weakens the rest of your argument.

  • Duncan Brack 6th Jun '14 - 11:00am

    What Simon says is true, but only a part of the picture. Oil prices world-wide are five times what they were in 2000, and not showing much signs of falling, as demand increases from China, India and other emerging economies. Outside the US, gas prices tend to be linked to oil. Inside the US, gas prices are indeed falling, thanks to shale, but they don’t export it – it’s mainly substituting for US coal use. Quite right, there are huge amounts of coal, and if the world burns any more of it it will accelerate the already unsustainable rate of global warming.

    Andy’s argument for sticking to the fourth carbon budget is absolutely right (and also something Lib Dem conference has voted for on more than one occasion).

  • Andy Atkins
    You wrote — ” One of the Coalition’s early (and too few) green successes was accepting the advice of the Independent Committee on Climate Change’s advice and signing the fourth carbon budget (2023-2027) into law. 

    Much of the credit must go to then Secretary of State Chris Huhne, who argued hard for its ratification, despite opposition from the Chancellor.”

    But since Chris Huhne’s unfortunate departure the  policy on climate change has gone into reverse after four years of the “greenest government of all time”.  

    Now the role of the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State seems to be to front up the right wing policies of the climate change deniers of the Conservative Party.
    Chris Huhne’s successor as Climate Change Secretary has been much keener on doing deals to dress up illegal subsidies to Hinkley C than he has been on leading the political debate on Climate Change. He likes fracking more than he likes these Liberal Democrat messages on climate change.

    You are absolutely right when you say –
    The environment is a key area where the Liberal Democrats have lost trust.

    But I am not so sure about your next sentence, especially as Clegg has said that with him as leader there will be “no change in strategy, no change in direction”. I would like to agree with you that —
    “….as we head towards the next general election there’s still time to regain some of this lost eco-credibility.”

    It begins to look as if time has already run out and The Green Party will be the only party in the General Election with any credibility on this subject.

  • Simon McGrath 6th Jun '14 - 11:39am

    @duncan – I wasnt commenting on the rest of the piece – more that he doesn’t help his case by stating as fact things which arent true.
    Oil prices are higher than in 2000 – but the have fluctuated enormously in between – in reality they are very difficult to forecast

  • Simon – as Duncan says, oil prices are five times higher than they were in 2000. Yes, there have been fluctuations and forecasting is difficult but it is clear that prices are on the long term rise and no analyst has suggested otherwise.

    One unique, country-specific and (likely) short term example otherwise does not disprove this.

    Next you’ll be saying ‘my local petrol station knocked a penny off a litre once six months ago. Therefore you can’t say that fossil fuel prices are ever-rising’.

  • Daniel Henry 6th Jun '14 - 1:21pm

    Simon, it does look like you’re using a short term fluctuation to argue against a much stronger overall trend.

  • Jenny Barnes 6th Jun '14 - 4:44pm

    And then there’s fracking. We cannot afford to burn all the fossil fuel we have already discovered, particularly coal, and the LDs are instrumental in trying to get a fracking boom going in the UK? Next, coal bed gasification under the North Sea?
    “Use fossil fuel, and no-one gets hurt” The Simpsons.

  • Simon McGrath 6th Jun '14 - 4:47pm

    @Simon –
    There is no connection between mortgage defaults and oil prices except in so far as a worse economy leads to lower oil consumption and lower prices.
    Will , daniel – prices may go up – it will partly depend on what happens to China. But high prices stimulate more ingenious ways of extracting oil and gas ( a la fracking) and more efficient ways of using power. What we do know is that at the moment renewables are multiples of conventional sources so there is a long way to go before the gap disapears ( though solar seems promising). At the moment more renewables means higher prices and greater fuel poverty.

  • Duncan Brack 6th Jun '14 - 7:09pm

    Well, Simon (McGrath), what do you think the government should do? Support renewables through taxes instead of energy levies? Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nuclear (just as expensive as onshore wind, at least)? Or not bother about climate change (if so, why?).

    And John Tilley, I’m no fan of Ed Davey’s stance on nuclear, but to accuse him of lining up with Tory climate deniers is ludicrous. Electricity market reform (with long term contracts for renewables), agreement on increasing subsidies for renewables, the Renewable Heat Incentive, support for community renewables … None of this would happened under a Tory government.

  • Prior to the election, the Lib Dems had both one of the best policies to deal with the Great Recession and one of the best environmental policies in the idea of a multi-billion dollar stimulus to be spend on greening public buildings, primarily through improved insulation and energy efficiency. It’s a real shame that great ideas like that got ditched in favour of stuff like a tax cut mostly spent on middle earners and nonsense like universal free school meals.

  • @Simon Oliver: “So you’re saying people having to choose between driving to work and paying the mortgage doesn’t lead to more defaults?”

    Do you really think your link supports your hypothesis? His own graph doesn’t even support his hypothesis. The model predicts a completely different pattern from the observed data.

  • Simon Oliver 7th Jun '14 - 9:12am

    Jack

    not sure which part of the quoted section is confusing you

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