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'Government's stance increasingly weak on climate change,' say Manchester University Professors

In the speech, delivered to the Aviva conference, ‘Climate Change: The Financial Implications,' last week, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Rudd emphasised the importance of controlling climate change in order to guarantee our economic security.

"Climate action is about security, plain and simple - economic security," said Rudd. "The economic impact of unchecked climate change would be profound."

The speech comes just weeks after the announcement of a distinctly non-green budget from George Osborne who, despite stating that the Treasury would “become a green ally, not a foe,” proceeded to slash the energy efficiency budget, abolish rules on zero carbon housing, end the tax break for clean cars and scrap the exemption that renewable electricity producers had under the climate change levy, a tax that is meant to help cut emissions.

However, David Cameron's recent proclamations of support for the international climate conference, to be held in Paris this December, seemed to contradict Osborne's stance somewhat and Rudd was left to defend both of her colleagues positions.

"The Secretary of State’s eloquent speech is long on rhetoric but short on coherence."

Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester.  

He engages widely across all tiers of government; from reporting on aviation-related emissions to the EU Parliament, advising the Prime Minister's office on Carbon Trading and having contributed to the development of the UK's Climate Change Act.

In response to Rudd's speech, he said:

“The Secretary of State’s eloquent speech is long on rhetoric but short on coherence. Let’s be blunt, whilst the Minister has chosen to view her Department’s responsibilities solely through a parochial financial lens – many poor people living in climatically more vulnerable parts of the globe will face the life and death repercussions of her Government’s increasingly weak stance on climate change.

“In evoking the legacy of Margaret Thatcher in support of her Government’s position the Minister demonstrates the contortions she and her Department are having to go through to comply with the Chancellor’s austerity diktat.

Since Thatcher’s 1990 speech, global emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, have risen by over 60%. For the UK, consumption-based emissions (including CO2 associated with imports and exports) were up 12% prior to the economic collapse, with the latest post-collapse data still putting UK emissions 1% higher than they were in 1990.

All this points towards a future with catastrophic levels of climate change. Only an urgent rejection of the incremental escapism that dominates the UK and international policy arena can now deliver the necessary rates of emission reduction.

Yet the Minister’s speech acknowledges no such urgency – instead she chooses to focus on how responding to climate change dovetails with the Chancellor’s drive for short-term financial growth.

The Minister closes with an assertion that the 2°C goal remains an imperative for her Government. Yet her own policies are premised on the UK’s receiving a hugely inequitable share of the global 2°C carbon budget, alongside the large-scale uptake of highly speculative negative emission technologies sometime in the far distant future.

"Inconsistencies between words and actions undermine the credibility of leadership."

Behind the eloquence of the Minister’s rhetoric lurks a UK Government’s position on climate change increasingly informed by a muddled blend of policy machinations and Dr Strangelove technologies, rather than by rigorous analysis.

Ultimately there is something deeply concerning about the most vulnerable communities’ being forced to pay the cost of the ineptitude of the banks and the spinelessness of the legislature. Yet it is exactly this approach that informs the scientifically illiterate basis of the Minister’s speech."

Dr John Broderick of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at The University of Manchester added:

“The message from the scientific community is that we need a new energy system in the next two decades to achieve the economic and ecological security that Amber Rudd speaks of.

Anything else is banking on geoengineering on a global scale, a very risky and uncertain strategy that would never be allowed under Margaret Thatcher’s famous “life tenancy”.

Inconsistencies between words and actions undermine the credibility of leadership. We require more than incremental change so it is short sighted to abandon policies that stimulate new energy industries or guarantee high performance infrastructure. Back-tracking from government directly and indirectly increases the costs and difficulty of avoiding dangerous climate change.

And Frank Geels, Professor of System Innovation & Sustainability, also at the University of Manchester said:

“The recent policy announcements should be seen as part of a longer political trend, partly driven by the right-wing of the Conservative party and partly by the Treasury (which has tried control DECC for several years). No longer constrained by the Liberal Democrats, the new government was able to continue this trend with new energy.

Despite the recent changes, the government is likely to meet its 2020 targets, because of the momentum of deployment and investment plans that are in the pipeline.

"It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the government has limited post-2020 climate change ambitions, despite repeated calls for this by the Committee for Climate Change."

A few years ago, the government’s plan was to increase renewable electricity to about 30%, and achieve further decarbonization with CCS and nuclear power.

Since then, both CCS and nuclear power have progressed much more slowly than anticipated. So, I would not be surprised if the government in a few years’ time uses this under-delivery to force a debate about the Climate Change Act, arguing that the climate change targets are unfeasible and that the Climate Change Act needs to be removed or watered down.

So, the recent policy announcements could turn out to be the first official moves in the ‘long game’ that the Chancellor is playing.”

To learn more about this issue, you can read the full transcript of Amber Rudd's speech here, or head to the University of Manchester website for more information.

Image 'Graphene Sunset' from Flickr user Pedrik