Environment

A disorienting sight to an Australian: How the UK got on with the climate change challenge

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At 9.20 pm on Tuesday, June 4, the United Kingdom used coal-fired power for the first time in 18 days, six hours and 10 minutes. This was the longest period the UK had gone without coal since 1882 when the nations first coal power plant opened at Holborn in London. It came just over two years after Britains first coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution and according to some analyses, it ended when viewers flicked on their tellies to catch up with an episode of the hit reality show Love Island.

Another significant climate change milestone was passed in the UK a week and a day later on Wednesday, June 12, when the Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that the UK would abandon the emissions reduction target it had set a decade earlier – to bring down emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 – and instead pursue a target of net zero by the same year.

Theresa May observing machinery which converts carbon dioxide into oxygen on the day she announced plans to eliminate the UK's net emissions.

Theresa May observing machinery which converts carbon dioxide into oxygen on the day she announced plans to eliminate the UK's net emissions.
Credit:PA

"Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children," May said in a statement. "Reaching net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target, but it is crucial that we achieve it to ensure we protect our planet for future generations. Standing by is not an option.”

Reporting the news that morning the BBC showed footage of bushfire and flood in Australia and said that Australia's bizarre weather conditions over the southern summer had been among the reasons the government had decided to move to ramp up its already considerable commitment.

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From an Australian perspective what is even more staggering than the apparent audacity of Mays plan, is the reception it has received. It is backed by the Labour opposition and by all the conservative MPs now vying to replace May when she leaves office next month.

Among the first interest groups to comment publicly was the Confederation of British Industries, whose director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, released a statement saying that UK business stood "squarely behind the government's commitment".

"This legislation is the right response to the global climate crisis, and firms are ready to play their part in combating it,” she said. "Climate leadership can drive UK competitiveness and secure long-term prosperity. This legislation must be followed by a commitment to long-term policies that support decarbonisation across the economy."

Within hours the government announced the creation of a Net Zero Task Force to help businesses adopt sustainable practices. Under the patronage of Prince Charles its membership includes the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as well as Aston Martin, energy companies Drax Group and EDF Energy, the UK Environment Agency, Lloyds Banking Group, Sky and UPS.

The sight of a government acting in concert with its opposition as well as industry and finance sectors on the advice of top scientists to tackle climate change can be disorienting to an Australian, so some context helps.

Politicians in the UK have been overwhelmingly united in accepting the scientific consensus on climate change since at least 1989, when Margaret Thatcher – herself a scientist before entering politics – became the first leader of a major nation to call for a United Nations treaty to combat climate change.

“What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate — all this is new in the experience of the earth," Thatcher told the UN in a speech that year. "It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways."

Margaret Thatcher, a scientist, recognised the threat of climate change.

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Margaret Thatcher, a scientist, recognised the threat of climate change.Credit:AP

She added: “It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. Whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

“We have to look forward not backward and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.

“Before we act, we need the best possible scientific assessment: otherwise we risk making matters worse. We must use science to cast a light ahead, so that we can move step by step in the right direction.”

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

And that is what British politicians have been able to do, doubtless aided by the fact that Thatcher herself shut down the UKs ailing coal sector in the mid-1980s. In 2003 the UK set itself a goal of reducing its greenhouse emissions by 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. In 2008 the UK Parliament passed the Climate Change Act with a vote of 463 to three.

The act recognised the need for statutory and economy-wide, multi-year targets set well in advance to help it reduce its emissions. It established a strong, independent, expert body to help guide the project, the Climate Change Committee.

That year, on the advice of the committee, the government increased its emissions reduction target to 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050, on the understanding that attaining the goal should cost no more than between 0.5 and 2 per cent of GDP.

In this context Mays announcement this week of a zero net emissions target is neither extravagant nor quixotic. It is simply acting in accordance with the advice of the CCC, which predicts this new goal can be met at the same cost as the previous one. So far the UK government has already achieved a 43 per cent reduction in greenhouse gasses on 1990 levels, and it has learned that with goals in place being pursued by government and business in concert, costs keep falling.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:

But, as one member of the CCC, Baroness Julia Brown, a crossbencher in the House of Lords and a distinguished academic and engineer, explained to visiting Australian journalists in London hours after Mays announcement, the benefits of the nations climate policy extend far beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions. She cites as an example the experience of the UKs offshore wind energy sector, which between 2015 and 2017 reduced the cost of the power it generated by half, from about £120 to £57 a megawatt hour.

The decline in offshore wind costs has been so fast that it is already undercutting nuclear power, though experts expect nuclear to be a key but declining part of the UK's energy mix for the coming years.

The reduction came about, says Brown, because the industry was able to take advantage of government subsidies predicated on cost reduction to improve technology and scale up production.

But the benefits go further than that. The port town of Grimsby, which has struggled since its fishing industry collapsed, is undergoing a high-tech renewal, a new export industry is evolving and the health costs of particulate pollution are reducing. “From the governments point of view this has been a brilliant economic success stRead More – Source