By Anders Lorenzen
In the wake of the Extinction Rebellion protests the UK government has been on a charm offensive, claiming they’re actually a world leader when it comes to tackling climate change; and arguably this is done to silence the claims put forward by the XR movement and Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg when she visited the UK recently. She claimed that the UK has hardly done anything to tackle climate change.
Are the UK government doing as much as they claim they are to tackle climate change?
Greta Thunberg argued that the UK government was lying when they said they had reduced emissions by 42% and it was, in fact, closer to being 10%. She argued that this was the case, as emissions from aviation, shipping and imports were not included.
However, in terms of how to calculate a country’s carbon emissions, the UK is only adhering to the internationally agreed standards. Many climate activists believe that a country’s imports should be included in its carbon emissions statistics, even though the goods have been produced in another country. They claim that the transport costs, shipping and aviation, with their huge carbon footprint, should be included. It would be harder to calculate these, as the statistics cross borders.
Therefore there are clear arguments that the UK government is not doing as much to tackle climate change as maybe they should and could. During former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s tenure, several key low-carbon policies were axed. And alternative policies have not been put in place during Theresa May’s premiership, which has primarily been concerned with Brexit. This means that funds that could have gone to climate change projects have instead been diverted to Brexit. David Cameron axed the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which meant that the numbers of people who worked on tackling climate change were severely reduced. It was recently reported that during the tenure of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary the personnel working on climate change were reduced by 25%.
The UK government proudly claims that they’re among the industrialised nations where emissions have fallen fastest, and say they have eliminated coal from the electricity sector. With regards to coal, that is true and that is a serious success story. Frequently, days pass where the UK uses no coal at all. But one can similarly ask is that due to UK government policies or to market trends? Many would also argue that it is bizarre then that since coal is already nearly eliminated that the UK’s government policy remains that coal should be eliminated completed by 2025. Why not bring it forward to 2020? Their policy on phasing out diesel by 2040 is similar in its aspirations. Both policies are set at a comfortable place in the future when the market will by then, quite likely, have delivered. 2040 is over 20 years ahead, and most people would argue that neither of these policies demonstrates or stimulates great ambition.
The axing of low-carbon policies
In 2015 the Cameron government made a series of changes to the UK’s low-carbon policies. First, they removed all subsidies to onshore wind, the cheapest form of new UK electricity generation. After that, they have also scaled back the support schemes for solar energy and started to phase out the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) scheme which finally ended March this year. The scheme made it economically feasible for homeowners and businesses to install solar power. The government also axed the much criticised ‘Green Deal’ scheme which sought to help homeowners make their homes more energy efficient. They also axed a law that would mandate that all new homes built after 2016 were zero carbon. Incentives for accelerating the uptake of electric vehicles were also scrapped.
The UK government has also been accused of climate hypocrisy for their backing of fracking, although despite friendly tax breaks the industry it is still to take off. Backing a new third runway at the UK’s biggest airport, Heathrow, as well as continuing to set aside more money for more roads has also been criticized by activists.
The UK government is doing something
However, it is not all bad news. Offshore wind production is one renewable energy technology where the UK has done remarkably well, and which has been well-supported by the government. The UK is considered the world leader in offshore wind. No other country has as much capacity deployed, and it is one of those bullish technologies which is predicted to continue to grow as technology improves. Wind turbines can be deployed in deeper and deeper waters, and the building of floating offshore wind platforms gives the technology almost unlimited potential.
Successive UK governments have also been applauded for climate diplomacy abroad, and it was in the UK that the first legally binding climate change law, the Climate Change Act, was signed and adopted.
Gradually the government is encouraging the rollout of more and more electric vehicle charging points, though some argue it is happening far too slowly.
However, a government that promotes itself as being keen on tackling climate change can’t just bank on one technology (though the government would argue it is backing several technologies). Many politicians, economists, commentators and policymakers would argue that it requires a diversity of different technologies. It is clear that the science and engineering is there for zero-carbon homes, for instance, as well as for making existing builds more efficient, but the adaptation to zero-carbon homes needs legislation, legal requirements and training of builders. The government could easily set a target to make all new builds zero carbon, as well as policies encouraging retrofitting existing builds. This is just one example. Across the board, the government could set more stringent targets that would accelerate the cutting of emissions as well as boosting the green economy.
Many activists have also argued that the government should encourage people to get out of their cars and cycle and walk more, as well as encouraging people to fly less and eat less meat. However, this is a route the government is reluctant to go down as they worry it will impact growth. Until this changes, we can expect to see more protest movements like XR and activists like Greta Thunberg calling the UK government to account.