COP21 and the challenge of climate leadership

Genuine progress is still possible in Paris - but real leadership is needed, now and in the future.

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By the end of this week we will know whether the Paris summit has produced a new global climate change accord. The risk that the talks will end in failure is ever present. Six years ago, world leaders arrived in Copenhagen similarly determined to work out a way to collectively curb carbon emissions, but that conference fell far short of expectations. Copenhagen may have been a necessary failure, but it was a failure nonetheless. In its wake, momentum toward a comprehensive international deal slowed.

It has taken six years to renew confidence in the prospect of a robust agreement. Hopes are high; not least because, for the first time since 1992, the positions of US, China and the EU are aligned. The spirit of optimism surrounding the conference was evident on Monday when world leaders delivered a bevy of positive speeches. Yet, anxieties remain. Multilateralism in this area has failed before and there is no guarantee it will not do so again.

The contours of a potential agreement are clear. The centrepiece of any deal to emerge from Paris will be a series of voluntary national plans (more than 180 of which have been tabled since March) reflecting the political and economic realities of each participant (‘nationally determined contributions’ or NDCs in the diplomatic jargon).

However, a series of sticking points may yet frustrate an agreement as negotiators attempt to transform unwieldy draft text into a coherent, focused agreement for ministers to finalise. They include:

The means by which voluntary national pledges will be reviewed (a large number of states want five-year review periods but India, China and several countries in Latin America and the Middle East want to wait until up to 2030 to strengthen their targets).
Whether the agreement should contain a ratchet mechanism to ramp up commitments if NDCs fail to produce sufficient global emissions cuts.
What financial support is provided by developed countries to poorer ones to help their transition to a lower carbon development model, whether a specific figure should be included, and whether levels of financial assistance should be reviewed if and when formerly poor countries grow to the extent that they will either not need climate finance in future or will start providing it themselves.

Despite these challenges, there is a real chance that a deal will be struck. There is even a fairly good chance it will be a strong one. However, it is highly unlikely to produce the deep cuts in emissions required to avoid perilous global warming. We still do not know precisely where the sum total of NDCs will leave the world, but a number of initial studies suggest there is likely to be a significant gap between agreed emissions reductions commitments and the measures necessary to achieve climate safety.

Whether or not Paris ultimately falls short of what is required to remain below the 2 per cent threshold, it is vital that everything is done to sustain momentum toward that end. That will require leadership to build on the very real progress made in the lead up to Paris, while also fostering an environment in which each country feels compelled to do more than it might otherwise wish to.

It is a point that has not been lost on my colleague, Ed Miliband, who recently made the case for enshrining a net zero emissions goal in UK law. Legislation would not only act as a means to provide the certainty that industry and business require, but would also be a bold gesture of intent that would send a clear signal to the rest of the world that our country will not cede the historic leadership we have shown when it comes to tackling catastrophic climate change.

That the UK still has some of the most advanced climate change legislation in the world is testament to the ambition of the last Labour government which doubled the UK's renewable energy capacity and, with all-party support, introduced the Climate Change Act mandating an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 – the first country in the world to legislate for cuts on such a scale.

That national ambition to lead the world towards a more sustainable future must be maintained. It is for that reason that the Government’s recent announcement of its intention to close all unabated coal-fired power stations by 2025 and restrict their usage from 2023 is welcome (although all but two were due to close by 2023 anyway).

However, the resulting dash for gas raises a number of serious concerns (not least the risk that bill payers will be left exposed to volatile gas prices) and the lack of a clear, strategic roadmap that shows how the Government intends to use gas as a bridge to a decarbonised electricity supply is disappointing. The recent emergence of a leaked letter from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, which revealed that the UK is predicted to fall short of its European Union obligations to get 15 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2020, is also a concern.

However, as worrying as that ‘revelation’ was, it should have come as a surprise to no one. Industry groups from across the renewable electricity sector have been raising concerns for years that the target was at risk. Heat and transport sectors have also been privately and publicly warning the target was at risk, primarily as a result of a lack of progress on decarbonising heat and the difficulties of delivering cross-departmental commitments with regards to transport. It was why, privately, there had been an acceptance that the renewable power sector may have to over-deliver in order to compensate for the slower progress on renewable heat and transport fuels.

The sad fact is that this Government’s changes to energy policy now also make that unlikely, particularly following the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement which saw an end to funding for Carbon Capture and Storage and significant reductions for the Energy Company Obligation and Renewable Heat Incentive.

However, there are some signs of hope in the domestic sphere. Last week it was announced that most of Britain’s major cities have pledged to run on green energy by 2050. The pledge was coordinated by Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Lisa Nandy, as a practical means of driving action on reducing emissions through green transport, an end to gas heating and the mass insulation of homes. It is a stark illustration not only of what Labour is capable of when in power but, also, of what might be achieved with the necessary political will. Instead, we have a Conservative Government that seems content to take its foot off the pedal on the basis that doing so is essential to relieve the pressure on energy bills.

It points to the central tension in how this Conservative Government is approaching energy and climate change policy. Viewing action on climate change as a zero-sum choice between rising costs for the consumer or short-term measures that undermine our ability to meet our long-term emissions targets, is imposing a false, and ultimately costly, trade-off between our energy security and clean and affordable energy.

We need to re-focus on the ways in which reducing emissions and investing in clean energy can give us a competitive advantage. We can reduce costs to the consumer through better funded and targeted energy efficiency measures; we can ensure our energy security by producing energy in the UK, rather than importing it; and we can build capability and drive investment in new high tech and innovative industries, rather than importing that expertise and capital from abroad. Just like the Paris summit, what is needed is not a sticking plaster but an ambitious long-term solution. 

Matthew Pennycook is MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, and member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee. He is PPS to John Healey. 

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