This post is by the Rt Hon Lord Barker of Battle, minister for energy and climate change from 2010 to 2014.
As we waited last week for the final agreement to emerge from COP21, David Cameron celebrated his tenth anniversary as leader of the Conservative Party, a position won in part because of his call for a fresh, ambitious approach to the environment. His government has now been at the heart of the international efforts that secured an historic climate deal in Paris.
We all know that rhetoric and declarations are meaningless without practical policy follow through but, nevertheless, many of us believe that, with COP21, we have reached a tipping point in history. Whether the actions that now follow will be sufficient, only time will tell, but the new direction of travel is clear. For governments around the world, for business, investors and civil society, a global low carbon, clean energy future is a reality. No longer just a notion in an Al Gore slide show, the low carbon economy has just received a massive, unprecedented boost.
I was with David Cameron in 2006 when we both stared in disbelief at that shrinking glacier in the far north of Norway, where scientists of the British Arctic Survey explained to us that the great expanse of open sea we gazed upon had, until only recently, been thick ice and that the melt rate was growing year on year. On returning home, David Cameron became the first of the main party leaders to call for the ground-breaking Climate Change Act.
UK has been an example to the world
The government has proved, beyond doubt, that you can grow the UK economy while still reducing emissions and, in so doing, set a big example to the world. We have deployed record levels of renewable energy, rescuing the UK from the bottom of the European Renewables league table. We now boast the world’s greatest offshore wind programme and, in the past year, the largest growing market for solar in the EU (a massive six gigawatts of solar during the time I was minister).
The government has recently taken the historic step to end the use of coal. Sceptic voices on the Tory backbenches are finally starting to recede into the rear view mirror of history and new, centre right entrepreneurs and business leaders are showing how markets and the private sector can mobilise billions in investment and drive exciting low carbon innovation.
Since the last election, the government has injected financial rigour into the clean energy sector, driving it ever closer to a subsidy free future and, with that, the ability to scale up and out compete fossil fuels, unconstrained by government budgets or a levy on consumer bills. Although the draft proposals for feed-in tariffs, still vital to support certain clean technologies, need careful revision before they are confirmed, I am increasingly confident that DECC understands that.
‘Change, hope and optimism’
But, let’s be honest, it hasn’t all been unalloyed success. There is still a huge amount to tackle and the negative impact of policy adjustments since the election may have been exaggerated, but they have also unsettled a wider audience.
Without a new, positive Conservative narrative and louder enthusiasm at home for the low carbon economy, which the UK has just recommitted to in Paris, financial rigour can look a lot like unthinking retrenchment. Having carried out the financial reset for the energy sector last month, we now need a ‘narrative reset’ fit for the brave new world post COP21.
Amber Rudd played a pivotal role in Paris and she deserves to reap the political dividend. However, she can’t do it alone. The Prime Minister must get behind her and help Conservatives once again get on the front foot of this agenda. Paris has created the all important low carbon level playing field, across Europe and beyond, that we need. Now we’ve got it, we must show we can win the game. ‘Change, hope and optimism’ was David Cameron’s leadership campaign slogan ten years ago. We needed it then, and we need it again now.
So, let’s unleash the huskies. It’s time for Conservatives to claim some credit for this historic agreement and forge a new and ambitious low carbon narrative that is rigorous, pro-consumer and right for our fast moving times. The rewards have never been higher.