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Clean Growth Strategy: the devil’s in the lack of detail

 

I’ve been head of climate and energy at WWF-UK since late November 2016. We talked about the Government’s ‘emissions reduction plan’ in my interview for the job; it was late, even then.  It was, at that time, expected before Christmas.  Then ‘early in the new year’, then ‘in the first quarter’ – which could have been the calendar year or the financial year.  And then an election campaign intervened – then summer recess, then the party conferences.  Finally, on 12th October 2017, we have the UK Government’s Clean Growth Strategy.

Clean Growth Strategy front pageClean Growth Strategy front page

So, what is it, why are we obsessed about it, and is it any good?

What is the Clean Growth Strategy?

Reduction of UK greenhouse gas emissions is regulated by the 2008 Climate Change Act.  This requires the UK Government to agree and set carbon budgets to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.  Budgets are agreed by Parliament, with the levels and trajectory recommended and reported on to Parliament by the Government’s advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The Act also requires Ministers to make a plan –‘proposals and policies’ for how we’ll meet the budgets.  The last time Government did that was in 2011.  It was pretty thin on detail, but actually the UK has done a lot to cut emissions – mostly in relation to electricity.  As a result, we’re doing well against our carbon budgets.  Not only have we met the first two, but we’ve passed the 37% reduction in emissions that we were to have achieved by 2020.  In fact, UK emissions are down over 40% since 1990 – a period when the economy has grown by more than two thirds.

However, a whole bunch of policies which have helped do this come to an end soon.  Without a new plan, we’d therefore have nothing to set out how we plan to meet the fourth carbon budget (2023-2027) or the fifth (2028-2032) – by which time, we should have cut emission by more than 57%.  That’s what we’ve been waiting for – and what became the Clean Growth Strategy.

Why are we obsessed with it? 

Because it’s so late.  Because it only deals with plans to get to 80% reductions in emissions anyway.  Because the Paris Agreement means that we need to get further than that by 2050.  Because you should always be suspicious when governments don’t do things they said they’d do!  And because we care passionately about tackling climate change.

So, is it any good?  Well, this probably depends who you are…

Theresa May, Prime Minister

“Clean growth is not an option, but a duty we owe to the next generation”, she said in her foreword to the strategy. OK, but does this fulfil the duty?

Claire Perry, Climate Change Minister

Measures in the clean growth strategy “not only continue our work in cutting emissions, but we can also cut consumer bills, drive economic growth, create high-value jobs right across the UK and improve our quality of life. It is a win-win opportunity: it is ours for the taking”, she told Parliament.

She’s probably pretty proud of what she and her officials have delivered in this strategy.  And, given the tone and ambition of it, some of that is deserved.  She gives every impression of believing passionately that we need to take action to tackle climate change, and that doing so is good for our economy.  At WWF, we share that view and are very happy to hear it expressed by UK Ministers.

Her predecessor, Nick Hurd, was similarly passionate.  But even he acknowledged yesterday that the strategy was better than when he left the department.

Hurd and clean growth strategy tweet

This owes a lot to the politics.  The PM’s former adviser, Nick Timothy, questioned the value of the Climate Change Act and argued for reducing support to green measures and delaying climate action.  His departure has almost certainly given the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department more scope for ambition –more power to influence colleagues elsewhere in Whitehall.

Additionally, and much-discussed at the Conservative Party conference, young people didn’t vote Tory at the last election.  By a significant margin, they voted Labour.  Why does this matter?  Because according to the World Economic Forum, climate change is the top issue of concern for ‘millennials’.  Polling by Conservative think tank, Bright Blue, bears this out in a British context, with climate change second only to health.  Most importantly, young people perceive Conservatives as weak on climate action – despite what they’ve achieved in government.

People working in the industries delivering clean growth

If you work on energy efficiency – helping cut our energy use and make our homes warmer and healthier – you’ll be delighted at the Government’s ambition, if a bit puzzled about how they’ll achieve it.  Here at WWF, and via our excellent and committed supporters, we campaigned for an energy efficiency target.  We asked the Government to commit that all homes should reach at least energy performance certificate (EPC) level C by 2035.  This would cut emissions from homes by a third –equivalent to taking 3 million cars of the road!  So, like those investing and creting jobs in the sector, we were very pleased indeed to see this in the strategy.

Homes target for Clean Growth Strategy

If you work in offshore wind, you’re already deliriously happy at recent news that turbines being built in five years’ time will generate power at a price lower than new gas generation.  And now this strategy offers up another half a billion pounds to buy more offshore wind in an auction in 2019.  Buying 10GW or more – and offering the chance for onshore wind on Scottish islands to bid for contracts too – this is a huge boost for an important industry that’s delivering big cost reductions, new high-skilled jobs, and valuable investment in the UK.

If you work in onshore wind, you’ll be disappointed that there’s nothing here for what is already one of the cheapest means of generating power.  If you work in solar, as the Solar Trade Association demonstrated, you’re angry about continued lack of support for another very cheap form of power generation.  And if you’re hoping to build a tidal power scheme in Swansea Bay, you remain mystified about the Government’s intentions.

Committee on Climate Change

Lord Deben, Chair of the CCC, welcomed the plan, recognising its ambition whilst cautioning that the challenge lies in delivery.  However, he went on to warn that Government shouldn’t try and meet carbon budgets by using accounting ‘flexibilities’ in the Climate Change Act – that the clear intention is that budgets should each be met by domestic action to achieve the lowest cost emissions reduction path to 2050.

Why did he say that?  Well, because the strategy leaves a possible gap in 2032 between what the fifth carbon budget should deliver, and what it will deliver.  To be fair, Government says it can’t yet work out what all of its new plans will deliver in terms of emissions reduction – many still need more work.  Just some of the measures, along with existing plans, might currently leave us as much as 9.7% short of the 2032 budget.  This would mean that the only way to stay on target would be either to use overshoots from previous budgets, or to trade credits internationally.  Neither the CCC nor WWF think this is the right way to do things.  To be fair, again, neither do Government – Claire Perry said they hope and plan not to have to do this.  But we must keep an eye on that!

WWF

Well, we’re pleased with the ambition, the money for renewables and the homes target.  It’s great to hear Government re-affirm commitment to phasing out coal from power generation – although we do need to see the plan for achieving that.  There are lots of other things in there that will help and that we welcome the opportunity to get involved in shaping. In the rounds, lots of these are good for energy bill-payers too – more home-grown power and better, more energy-efficient homes will do so much more to cut energy costs in the long-run than a cap on energy prices will.

But we’re worried at the lack of new policies on transport and we still think that a phase-out of diesel and petrol car sales by 2040 is leaving it at least a decade too late.  We’re deeply worried about the absence of a plan for dealing with emissions from aviation – not least the increased emissions as a result of building a new runway at Heathrow.  And we’re anxious about the lack of detail under some of the ambition and headlines.

Overall – does the Clean Growth Strategy do the job?

Lots to welcome; lots to challenge.  There’s still a lot to do – devil in the detail, or in the lack of detail –and we’ll stay obsessed with it.  What’s more, we’re going to work harder and harder to get more and more people obsessed with it!  It’s never guaranteed that a Government will do absolutely the right thing because all or most people want them to.  But it is guaranteed that they probably won’t bother doing things that they think people don’t care about.  So we’ll be continuing – and stepping up – our work to help make sure Government knows just how many people care about taking climate action, and just how much.

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