Amidst the macho gun-slinging of the election campaign we’ve just seen something remarkable and unexpected: an outbreak of wisdom and humility. The party leaders have put down their pistols and agreed to work together on climate change at home and abroad.
The parties instinctively dislike such shows of unity because politics thrives on difference, especially in the run up to an election, so it is testament to the personal commitment of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg that last week they each signed an agreement reaffirming the UK’s commitment to climate ambition. It is a vindication for everyone who has refused to cede ground to those who wanted a polarised debate, and a great result for the hundreds of thousands of people who supported the #showthelove campaign last week.
It’s worth looking at how this agreement appears to those outside the UK. The effusive praise heaped upon the three leaders by former Vice President Al Gore, who has called it “true statesmanship and inspiring leadership”, gives us a clue to how remarkable it is. As the Washington Post report of the agreement said: “It’s hard enough to get politicians from different parties to agree the colour of sky, let alone the future of the planet.”
There have been a number of commentators in the UK who think that the country is moving inexorably in the same direction as the US, where tackling climate change has been dragged into culture wars between left and right. It’s a horrible place to be, because long term policy is almost impossible to achieve. The low carbon market becomes whatever would have happened anyway as energy demand grows, or is driven by the temporary incentives a government can force through on its watch.
At times a left-right split in the UK has looked like a distinct possibility. The lack of a public narrative from the Conservative leadership on climate change has left a vacuum to be exploited by the radical right, to question climate change science or policy. But there are few signs that it is working. Behind the scenes the Prime minister has made a series of directional decisions which have reinforced the UK’s low carbon direction, most notably in agreeing a 4th carbon budget and in pushing successfully for carbon reductions of at least 40 per cent from all 27 EU member states. And now David Cameron has joined Miliband and Clegg in making a very public vow to maintain that direction.
Stability for investments
This doesn’t mean that there won’t be battles about how to better deliver carbon reduction, but it does mean investors can now have more comfort in knowing that, whatever the colour of the next government, it’s going to be heading in the same direction, namely the steady decarbonisation of our economy.
And for the energy industry, there is a clear signal: coal will not be part of the future. It has been implicit in UK energy industry for over a decade but, for the first time, a major economy has made it explicit that it will end the use of unabated coal for power generation. It puts Germany to shame for its massive coal programme, and it shows the developing world that there is prosperity beyond the dirtiest fossil fuel.
There is much work to be done after the election to turn this agreement into effective and speedy action, but we can win those battles because the public is with us. In the first 24 hours of this week’s push from the #showthelove campaign a quarter of a million people watched its film by Ridley Scott. The Climate Coalition which lies behind the campaign has big plans for the summer, which will help carry public pressure into the next parliament.
A cause for celebration
We should stop to enjoy this moment. After years of careful planning by development and environment groups we have a new public platform for engagement on climate change, and it is working. After a concerted advocacy push we have a political agreement that consolidates the progress we have made on emissions reduction. After a parliament of distinctly mixed signals it will give nervous investors some reassurance that the UK will stay the low carbon course. Best of all we have shown the world that climate change can be a non-partisan issue, and resisted the curse of polarisation. I think that is cause for a small celebration.