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Big tasks need big leaders


History teaches us, over and over again, that when we’re faced with big challenges, we need good leaders to help us through them.  Challenges don’t come on a much bigger scale for Planet Earth – and every living thing on it – than climate change.  So do our leaders have the vision, ambition and stature to see us through? And what does that mean for UK climate policy?

Lionesses leading their cubs in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.Lionesses leading their cubs in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

‘Giants of yesteryear’

For years, I’ve mocked my Dad for repeatedly complaining about political leaders: “where are the giants of yesteryear?” he asks in fury or despair, “the Barbara Castles, Nye Bevans and Roy Jenkinses?” But as I get older, I’ve stopped mocking and started to nod a little morosely.

Facing a public health crisis in the 1960s, Castle legislated for seat-belts in cars, imposed motorway speed limits and introduced the breathalyser. Jenkins gave government backing to private members’ bills to transform the lives of millions, legalising abortion and decriminalising homosexuality; not following, but leading public opinion. And Bevan’s legacy is arguably one of the most radical moments of political leadership. Huge, ambitious and expensive at a time of financial hardship, with opposition from vested interests; done because “no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means” (Nye Bevan, In Place of Fear, 1952). Musing beyond my Dad’s preferences, you might add Macmillan for his leadership building 300,000 houses a year in the 1950s, or even Heath’s passionate championing of the European project in the 1970s.

Now here we are, in the 21st century, in one of the richest and most liberal countries on the planet. We’re confronted by an existential threat – climate change – for which, like the link between poverty and poor health, we understand both the cause and the solution.

UK climate policy leadership?

The UK government in 2008 led internationally by introducing the Climate Change Act; governments since have stood by it. The coalition government of 2010 was bold in committing £7.6bn of public subsidy, raised through energy bills, to leverage private money for renewable electricity infrastructure. From low single digits in 2010, a third of our electricity will come from renewables by 2020 as a result.

But, just five years on, the next government was elected on a promise to scale this back – to cut support to the cheapest forms of generation, before they can readily be built without public assistance. Despite ratifying the Paris Agreement, UK leadership was replaced by timidity. Timidity in the face of those happy for the countryside to be criss-crossed by power wires between pylons to deliver power to their homes and businesses, but who don’t want wind turbines blotting our green and pleasant land. Timidity in the face of those who would have you believe your energy bills are spiralling upwards to fund these monstrosities. And timidity in the face of big companies with a future hitched to fossil fuels.

Energy bills

We can see this in the coverage of British Gas’ latest price hikes.  As inconsistent with their figures as any politician caught on the stump without numbers to hand, British Gas’ parent company, Centrica, blamed the ‘green taxes’ bogey-man. This profitable multinational utility company, whose CEO takes home £4m each year, blamed an increase nearly five times the rate of inflation on something that makes up nine per cent of the average energy bill.

Daily Telegraph, 2nd August, 2017

The Committee on Climate Change has shown that government low-carbon policies – particularly energy efficiency measures – have actually cut energy bills. If these companies were honest about costs, not only would they acknowledge this, but they would pass on the fall in wholesale electricity prices that comes, in part, from the renewables revolution.

So, where were political leaders decrying this nonsense and making the case for this small proportion of our energy bills paying to tackle climate change? Where was former energy Minister Greg Barker’s excellent credo about moving from a ‘Big Six to big sixty thousand’ – premised on British Gas and co no longer being the only games in town? Comparison sites will show you how many providers there are now; as someone who has switched provider twice in recent years, I assure you it’s quick and easy to switch to a cheaper, greener provider.

Driving transport emissions

As with power, so with transport. Not only are greenhouse gas emissions from transport rising, but once again vehicles are driving a public health crisis – one causing 40,000 premature deaths a year, limiting children’s ability to learn, and harming their health. In response, after seven years of crisis, government has given local authorities eight months to see what they can do with £250m, and announced a 2040 ban on sales of petrol and diesel vehicles.

Going solely on media noise and industry cries of pain, you’d conclude this was big, brave, bold leadership. In reality, 23 years is a long time if we want to achieve our Paris goals. It’s also longer than the industry actually needs: take Volvo’s commitment to make all cars electric or hybrid in just two years’ time as Exhibit A.

The UK was, anyway, committed to something not far off this already. And Bloomberg New Energy Finance project over half of new European vehicle sales being electric by 2040, arguing the technology represents a paradigm shift akin to that we’ve seen with mobile phones.

So actually, this isn’t new and it follows the technology rather than setting technology-leading goals for industry. We lag behind India, Norway and the Netherlands, all with earlier phase-out commitments; bringing UK ambition forward to 2030 would be bold, maximising emissions reductions as well capitalising on jobs and growth opportunities.

Our homes shouldn’t cost the Earth

And finally, UK climate policy needs to be bolder to tackle emissions from our buildings too. Twenty-one million UK homes fall below energy performance certificate (EPC) rating C.  Relatively modest improvements to bring them up to that level would cut their emissions by a third – equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the roads.

If you’re curious how much you could save in your own home, then you can do a quick check on our website, as well as telling your MP you want government action on all homes.  Because politicians need to hear from us that we care about this.

Tomorrow’s green giants?

We need bold ambition to tackle these three sources of emissions in UK climate policy – specifically the government’s Clean Growth Plan, expected in early September. We must hope that, when it comes to climate change, air pollution and environmental protection, we can one day look back fondly and annoy our kids by lauding the bold leadership of the Claire Perrys, Greg Clarks and Michael Goves of yesteryear.

(A version of this piece was first published by Business Green on 4th August, 2017)

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