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2 December 2016

Breathing life back into UK climate policy

Onshore wind energy must be at the heart of the UK's mainstream policy, writes Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas

By Caroline Lucas

Countries across the globe came together to sign an historic deal on climate change. Though many of us fought for a stronger agreement, what came out of Paris did at least see  a commitment to keeping warming to two degrees – and, importantly, to pursue efforts to stay below 1.5 degrees.

It’s fair to say that the UK government, working with colleagues in Europe, played an important role in the Paris agreement – and earlier this month ministers warmly patted themselves on the back as they ratified the deal here in the UK.

Whilst the Paris Agreement marked one of the most important moments in the global fight against climate change, we must not forget how far we have to go. Without a step-change in ambition, we will blow the 1.5 degree goal in three years, and, by the end of the century, the world could have warmed by four degrees or more.

Even if we keep warming to two degrees, the effect of climate change presents a profound danger to us all. From floods and droughts, to crop failure and refugees; climate change will irrevocably change the world we live in.

Here in the UK, we should celebrate our world-leading Climate Change Act and its legally binding five-yearly carbon budgets. But despite its impressive legal framework, the UK government remains painfully slow at delivering on the emissions reductions it requires. We currently lack almost half the policies we need to meet our 2030 targets – indeed, over the last year, we have gone backwards.

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Beneath a layer of green spin, ministers have demolished many of the UK’s renewable energy and energy saving policies. The UK’s attractiveness as a destination for renewable investment has dropped to an all-time low. The
solar industry has lost 15,000 jobs in the last year alone, and only 10 new community energy organisations have been registered this year, compared with 76 in 2015.

Then there are the energy projects that the government has supported. On the one hand there’s the multi-billion pound folly of Hinkley Point, which will not only divert resources away from low-carbon energy, but holds the electricity grid back from becoming more responsive and decentralised.

Then there’s the planned ‘dash for gas’ that’s seeing our beautiful countryside measured up for fracking. These reckless decisions are at odds with the climate reality. As economists, physicians, engineers and scientists across the world have now made clear, there can be no new fossil fuel infrastructure and we must keep the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground.

In the UK, we stand at a fork in the road, and the threats are clear and present: from Donald Trump across the pond to the reactionary elements within the Conservative party here. The central challenge for all of us fighting climate change here in the UK is to breathe life back into the Climate Change Act.

The good news is that we have two ministers in charge of climate and energy policy, Nick Hurd and Greg Clark, who understand the task in hand. And after six years of a Treasury led by a man who reportedly described green campaigners as the ‘environmental Taliban’, we now have a Chancellor who has been very clear about the need to tackle head-on the biggest challenge of our age.

Early signs from Theresa May haven’t been overwhelmingly positive but with the potential for a more proactive approach to economic policy and the cross-departmental Emissions Reduction Plan pencilled in for the New Year, there is hope yet.

From Greenpeace to National Grid, Policy Exchange to Energy UK, the consensus is that the alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear are not only healthier and fairer, but also that they make economic sense. Smart meters, home and grid-scale batteries and flexibility from energy-intensive industries, coupled with the renewable energy we have in abundance, would be much more efficient than building new power stations to meet extra demand during relatively short periods.

The cost of wind and solar continues to drop by the day, and we know that a nationwide scheme of home insulation would hugely reduce demand, keep people warm in their homes and provide jobs in every constituency for a fraction of the price of nuclear white elephants.

If the government wanted to make a bold statement of their intent to meet the climate challenge head on then there’s an obvious place to start: remove the de facto ban on onshore wind power. Onshore wind now matches new gas power stations on price, while its popularity has just hit record highs.

Polling released recently by climate change charity 10:10 and ComRes showed 73 per cent of the public back it – compared to just 34 per cent for fracking. In 2015 onshore wind delivered 6 per cent of all UK electricity demand, a tripling on its 2010 contribution – and 20 per cent of all renewable generation.

It is now categorically mainstream – and as the windiest country in Europe it’s a resource we’ve only just started to tap. Putting onshore wind back into the energy mix would just be the start of the transition we need to make. Interestingly, many of the key people behind the Climate Change Act recently suggested they could have gone much further at the time – an important reminder to never stop pushing at the boundaries of what we think is possible.

As the climate crisis unfolds in front of us, a bold, dynamic and adventurous politics that is unafraid to challenge and confront has never been more necessary.