Greg Barker was on the Environmental Audit Select Committee from 2001 to 2005. The committee looks across government at the environmental impact and environmental policies of the government as a whole. He was minister for climate change from May 2010 until July 2014.
Lily Cole: When did you first become interested in climate change policy?
Greg Barker: Although Margaret Thatcher had gone to the UN in 1989 and warned the world about climate change and called for action, it wasn’t something that was at the top of the political agenda. However, that period of me coming into parliament, wanting to take more of an interest in environmental issues, and focusing in that way through the Select Committee coincided with the rise or resurgence of interest in climate change. Now, at the time, the solutions I was coming up with were at a bit too radical, maybe a little too much.
A major intervention in the market to change the energy sector, or significant funding for new technologies or regulatory interventions, which were a bit much for the then conservative leadership. However, when David Cameron became leader in 2005, he encouraged me to be radical and gave me the job that I wanted and gave me the mandate to rethink the conservative approach to environmental issues.
Now, if you’re thinking about climate change, however much you believe in free markets and the power of innovation and technology and the vital importance of entrepreneurs in driving change, ultimately there is market failure because we can’t just rely on the market to get to the solution in its own time.
There is an external timetable which is the science of climate change. If we’re going to keep global warming to below two degrees we have to act by a certain deadline.
That’s what mobilised the Climate Change Act in the UK, which was to the credit of the last Labour government that they passed it, with cross-party support.
What does the Climate Change Act in the UK involve?
It involves setting carbon budgets and a pathway to commit in law to the UK reducing its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. That is huge.
We laid down that challenge, we took on that commitment, without knowing completely how the solutions would emerge. An encouraging thing is, that was 2008, so in seven years we have come a long way already.
We continue to cut our emissions. The UK is 25 per cent below its 1990 levels of carbon emissions, although we are the fastest growing economy in the G8. So we’ve proved that you can grow your economy and continue to cut emissions, and we are actually on course to meet our shorter term and long term commitments to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
Clearly, as you go through into the next decades, going from 25 per cent to 50 per cent, then 50 to 80, that gets hard, that does call for profound change You’ve got to decarbonise our energy systems by the 2030s; shift cars from petrol and diesel to electric; become much more energy efficient,
Ultimately we can argue between ourselves as politicians and political parties and government and NGOs about whether or not we’re pursuing the right policies but “what are your absolute levels of emissions?” is the ultimate exam question and so far we are on track.
What do you think of the argument that – without carbon taxes – we won’t get the reduction we need?
First, there are already a huge number of carbon taxes in the UK already when you fill up your car with petrol, the majority of the spend when you get to the till is actually going in tax, and what is that? That’s a tax on carbon…
And for businesses?
Businesses also pay a significant surcharge on the raw cost of fuel. Now the question is – do you want a further uniform cost of imposition of a tax on carbon – we do, but if we’re going to have any more, it needs to be regional i.e. Europe, or ideally worldwide, because if you just have certain countries imposing unilateral carbon taxes – all that it does is put them at an economic disadvantage.
And how optimistic do you feel about that?
I’m disappointed that more leaders didn’t follow David Cameron’s example and actually turn up [to the UN Summit in September 2014]
It was a big ask of David Cameron, particularly given the other issues on the political agenda, given that we’re so close now to a General Election, given what’s happened in Scotland, for him to take time out of his diary and come here, spend the time he has on climate change – that’s a big standout commitment. What is disappointing is that Angela Merkel wasn’t here, that the Chinese President wasn’t here, that Obama came but didn’t stay for the important working dinner. He made a speech for four minutes, however long it was, but then left.
What did he say in his speech of four minutes?
I welcomed Obama’s increased focus on climate but, they need to do more.
What can the UN and international leaders do?
Well, they need to a) turn up; b) put in place domestic policies that will drive change in their own countries.
And is there anything that individuals can do?
There’s lots of things that individuals can do, but we can’t shift the burden of action on to individuals and away from government. We don’t want people to grow disenchanted, because they’re installing energy saving lightbulbs and at the same time the new coal fired power stations are shooting up
But there are things that we can do – such as reducing the amount of meat we eat. It’s just a token amount, but you can actually make a difference just by giving up meat one day a week. We know by giving up meat one day a week, over a year that’s the equivalent of not driving your car for a month.
When you say that the government has managed to reduce carbon emissions by 25 per cent, how have they done that?
A lot of people will be surprised, particularly given the controversy around fracking, that actually the largest single contributor to emissions reduction since 1990 is something that was already in [development] when we passed the Climate Change Act. Namely the big switch from coal fired power stations to gas fired power stations under the last Conservative government in the 1990s.
That underpins the fact that the biggest single driver of emissions in the world, is coal, and dirty coal fired power stations, and switching from coal to gas – while it isn’t the end solution – as part of a journey from fossil fuels to clean energy, is incredibly important not least because we’re seeing this huge rush of new, the new building of coal fired power stations in China and across the developing economies.
Renewable energy alone, currently, isn’t going to be sufficient to supply the huge insatiable demand there is for new energy. So, gas is in the short to medium term is a vital ‘partner’ of renewable energy.
It also works well because a lot of renewable energies like wind and solar are intermittent, so you need gas available to come on and provide that backup. Keeping coal in the ground is the most important thing.
Now we’re going forward, we’ve got to drive the creation of whole new technologies and energy generation systems, so in the UK we now have the world’s largest offshore wind program, we’ve got huge amounts of solar being deployed, we have the potential for wave and tidal technologies, and one of the things I’m very proud of as minister, I created our first marine energy parks. There’s still a long way to go…
What are marine energy parks?
Areas to test and deploy wave and tidal devices in south west and also in the Pentland Firth in order to scale up the generation of electricity from wave and tidal, something that the UK as an island has huge potential for, but at the moment is still very nascent…
How hard do you think it is to keep developing all these renewable possibilities alongside using gas as an intermediary step?
Well, I think you’re certainly going to need gas through to the 2030s, but by then hopefully we will have developed carbon capture and storage sufficiently…
What does that mean?
That means that you can burn fossil fuels like gas or even coal potentially, but you will extract the carbon from it rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.
And are you more optimistic about those than you are about the potential future that we have entirely 100% renewable energy for resource?
Ultimately, I think we will go 100 per cent renewable, I mean if you look at the huge potential for solar, I think that is the most transformational technology that exists today and that we can anticipate. We need to find new ways to store electricity, but the coming of the ‘smart grid’, the coming of cheaper, more efficient battery technologies is going to completely change the energy landscape.
What’s a ‘smart grid’?
‘Smart grid’ is where a consumer is able to take control of the electricity that they’re using by switching between different tariffs, by informing the householder how much they’re using and when they’re using it, and then take decisions…
And are you excited about products like ‘Nest’, the smart thermostat?
We are sitting on the wave of whole new range of consumer-facing technologies that are going to empower the consumer, increase our quality of life, and also help cut bills as well as reduce emissions.
By 2020 we’re going to have 90% penetration of smart meters in British homes and I think that will mean we’re much more open to other technologies.
What did you think of the criticism of green taxes on energy bills and how they were pushing up bills?
There is a concern because of the squeeze on the cost of living, which is understandable, that anything we do that will add to energy bills which are now a huge part of many people’s monthly or even weekly household bills – anything that we do to add to that, it has to be thought of much more seriously.
We cannot afford to be blasé, so we need to do what actually Tesco or Aldi do every day, we need to do more for less. We need to deliver good environmental outcomes using less money and we need to think carefully before using taxpayers’ or consumer subsidies to fund programs.
And is the 80% carbon emission reductions commitment by 2050, is that signed into law in a way that transcends the five-year terms of parties?
It is. It’s the law of the land..
What is your biggest fear in this whole situation?
My biggest fear is that there won’t be a global agreement commensurate with the commitments and targets we’ve taken on domestically. But on balance I’m not fearful, I’m more optimistic. I think it will require more political will, it will require more innovation. This is just the beginning…
Can you tell me the government’s position on fracking?
Fracking has got a bad name because in some parts of the US it’s taken place in very lightly regulated states. In the UK we a very highly regulated environment for fossil fuels, the energy companies have an excellent record of health and safety and of environmental integrity and we’ve been producing on-shore oil and gas in the UK safely and responsibly for decades.
We need more gas, and we cannot tell the Chinese or other developing economies to stop using coal and use more gas if we’re saying at home, “Ooh, gas is dangerous”, or “Don’t use gas”, or “Not for us”. One thing we know about energy sources is that you have to be consistent, so we need to use gas responsibly, not as a first resort, but basically when energy efficiency won’t do the job.
And what do you think about businesses’ role to play in all of this?
Business is key, particularly the smaller, disruptive new entrants – innovation comes from the private sector and that’s what we need to see but there is a role for government as well: supporting research budgets, supporting innovation in universities.
Business is the key ally in fighting climate change. By and large the greatest environmental degradation and pollution have been in places like Russia and China, or Eastern Europe where you’ve had a command and control economy, not in those places where you’ve had a regulated free economy…
Do you think that we’ll see a solution to this in our life time?
I think so. Not just in our lifetime, I think we need to see a solution within the next few years. I’m optimistic – I believe in man’s ingenuity and genius and I think we just need to find ways of tapping into that.
Lily Cole: What do you think of the Climate Change Act and the commitment to reduce emissions 80 per cent by 2050?
Caroline Lucas: The Climate Change Act is incredibly important because it set clear, legally binding, long term targets to cut UK carbon emissions. The UK parliament, in passing the Climate Change Act, set a hugely positive example in terms of global leadership in the fight against climate change.
It was passed after a major public campaign for serious legislation to tackle the threat of climate change, and only five MPs voted against it. That public and political consensus on the economic and environmental arguments for bold action on climate change was really important.
Yet, if we’re serious about keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees, which is the level at which the UK and other countries agree is essential to avoid catastrophic harm to our economy and society, it’s not ambitious enough.
The commitments in the Climate Change Act give us only a 37% chance of keeping below 2 degrees, and even that is premised on global emissions peaking around 2016, which, now, is clearly not going to happen.
Judgements on acceptable levels of risk are political, but a 63% chance of exceeding the internationally agreed 2 degrees threshold is an enormous risk that I don’t think we should be taking. We owe it to our children and to future generations to strengthen the Climate Change Act and speed-up and scale-up action to cut emissions.
The other issue with the Climate Change Act is that it doesn’t count UK emissions from consumption – only those we produce directly. Whilst some politicians claim that UK is doing well and is on track to meet carbon reduction targets, the problem is that we’ve shifted the manufacture of goods to China – so they are now responsible for emissions from products that we’re still consuming in the UK.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the question of whether governments put in place the policies to deliver the targets set out in the Climate Change Act. “Deeds not words” as the Suffragettes said. There’s no use pointing to a 2050 carbon reduction target if you’re not taking action in the meantime to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and to eliminate energy waste.
That’s illustrated by recent figures that show high carbon was meant to be 8% of our energy spend this year but it’s just been revised up to 61%.
As well as a long term framework, we need short term transformative policies and action. That would create a lot of jobs too, and will mean that the UK produces much more of its own energy from clean home-grown renewables – rather than relying on imported coal, oil and gas.
What do you think about carbon taxes and the need to apply them to a greater extent to businesses?
Carbon taxes can have an important role to play. The argument is that, without a price on carbon, companies can generate as much as they want, causing serious harm to the rest of society, but without having to pay a penny to compensate.
So if you want companies to find ways to go about their business in a low carbon way, then putting a tax on carbon should provide an incentive for them to do so – if it’s set at a high enough level.
But carbon taxes must be designed carefully, so that the costs do not fall on poorer or more vulnerable people, and so that businesses are given help to cut their emissions where necessary.
Carbon taxes tend to go straight into Treasury coffers. But there’s a strong argument for recycling carbon taxes into projects that help people save money or further cut carbon emissions. For example, the Energy Bill Revolution campaign has been calling for carbon taxes levied on businesses to be used to fund a nation-wide programme to make all homes super energy efficient. That would reduce household energy bills, help cut carbon, and create thousands of jobs all across the UK.
Carbon taxes have a role to play although they are just one of many tools that Government can use to tackle climate change. Others include regulation and minimum standards, for example imposing a limit on the amount of carbon that any power station can produce, requiring a certain proportion of energy to be generated from renewables by a set date, or ensuring that all homes meet certain levels of insulation.
Greg Barker says the government has managed to reduce emissions by 25% by a significant transition from dependency on coal to gas for energy. What do you think of this achievement / approach?
Greg is right that switching from coal to gas has, historically, played a significant role in cutting UK emissions. However, if you look at the carbon cuts we need to make over the coming years, even those set out under the Climate Change Act, that’s not an approach we can keep using. Gas is still a high-carbon fossil fuel. We need to do as much as we can to switch to renewable energy and cut energy waste if we’re going to meet climate change commitments.
The question isn’t whether we’re reducing emissions a bit; it’s whether we’re reducing them enough.
Another way of seeing it is to look at the total amount of reserves of oil, coal and gas we already know about – proven reserves. Globally, the amount of carbon that we would release if we burned all those reserves is 5 times greater than the amount of carbon that is ‘safe’. That means we need to leave around 80% of coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground.
Whilst getting off coal is crucially important, we need to be making much stronger efforts to reduce our reliance on gas too – rather than giving tax breaks to companies who want to explore for shale gas reserves that only add to this ‘unburnable carbon’ problem.
How soon do you think we can switch to a 100% renewable energy dependency (Greg Barker believes we will need gas until the 2030s)?
Report after report shows the potential for renewable energy. For example, the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain study, being at the forefront, shows how we could be 100% renewable by 2030.
Across the world there are an increasing number of countries, cities, towns, villages and businesses on the path to 100% renewable energy or 100% renewable electricity.
During that transition – even on a slightly longer timescale that 2030 for the whole energy system – we will still use a small amount of gas. But that’s no justification to build a whole new fossil fuel industry in the form of fracking.
Instead we should be going for green gas – from organic waste. In 2009 the National Grid found renewable gas from anaerobic digestion could meet 50% of UK demand and is a “readily implementable solution”. And maximising energy saving to minimise the amount of energy from whatever source needed to heat our homes.
Globally, the staggering fact is that there are still 1.3 billion people globally who don’t have access to electricity.
But they’re not going to go through the same process of developing a national grid with fossil fuel power stations like the UK. in the same way that they’ve leapfrogged from having no phones straight to mobile phones – missing out landlines – they’re going to leapfrog from no electricity to having decentralised solar and other renewable energy supplies.
Especially with the advances in renewable technologies and rapidly falling costs, especially of solar PV, that’s the only economic and environmentally sensible route.
It also makes sense when you remember that the impacts of climate change – whether that’s drought or flooding – tend to be felt much more severely in countries in the global south.
What are your thoughts on fracking? Greg defends fracking as an intermediary solution to meeting energy demand, and a better option to coal.
Many people are rightly concerned about the local environmental and public health impacts of fracking.
The shale gas industry has a terrible track record in the US and elsewhere. The whole industry only got off the ground in the States after being granted an exemption from their Clean Water Act.
Many of these same companies are lobbying hard here in the UK to weaken regulations, and speed up the planning process, cutting local people out of the process, as we’re seeing with the changes to trespass law currently going through parliament, which allow fracking beneath people’s homes without permission.
The Coalition is obsessed with deregulation and cuts, which means that the prospect of having sufficiently-resourced, independent monitoring agencies to guarantee the highest possible environmental standards is simply not on the cards.
But even if we did have gold standard regulation of the shale gas industry, exploiting a new source of fossil fuels when we already have five times more than we can safely burn globally to avoid dangerous climate change, is simply irresponsible.
The University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre has done a lot of research into the compatibility of shale gas in the UK with our climate change targets. Their conclusion is clear: that UK shale gas development is “quantitatively and unambiguously incompatible” with the UK’s commitment to make our fair contribution to reduce emissions in line with keeping global warming below a 2°C rise. Furthermore, it is extremely unhelpful to international efforts to securing a global climate agreement for a rich country like the UK – with some of the best renewable energy resources in the world – to send out a message which essentially says: “we haven’t got enough fossil fuels – we need to find more, dig them up and burn them”.
That position is unhelpful for the current climate talks in Lima and it could seriously undermine the UK’s stated aims of securing a global agreement next year in Paris.
There’s a final reason to go all out for renewables and not shale gas. That’s about who’s in control. About ownership: 68% of the public say the energy companies should be run in the public sector. I think we do need to put energy back into public hands, but not via a centralised state-ownership model. What we should be going for instead is more of a decentralised energy democracy, with community and municipal ownership of generation and of the grid too. Renewable energy – whether that’s biomass, solar, solar farms, or onshore wind – opens the door to all of this. Fracking does not.
Lily Cole is the founder of impossible.com