It’s time for a new Conservative narrative on low carbon

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.

5 comments

  • Dr Rex Gaisford CBE

    The outcome from COP21 based on “agreeing” and “controlling” carbon dioxide emissions could be propelling the world towards a bit of a fudge and possibly even failure if it doesn’t devise a true “mechanism” for success..
    The grand rhetoric at COP21 was very indeed very inspiring but it only set targets and political promises. It did not address the issue of CO2 management and “how” these promises are to be achieved.
    On the other hand, since almost all dangerous carbon emissions come directly from burning fossil fuel, it is entirely possible to set up a mechanism to regulate the world production of fossil fuel destined for “free burn” (i.e. without release of CO2) in the atmosphere. This then solves the problem.

    A way to break the current strangle hold on way forward for a climate change mechanism debate, based on actually measuring and controlling carbon dioxide emissions, could be, to move the focus away from carbon dioxide itself. Move it away from the notion of directly measuring this elusive compound and instead go to a world wide commercially robust market driven solution focused on a progressively ban on “free burn” fossil fuel. This ban becoming tighter each year over 50 years.
    This approach would clear governments and tax payers from direct responsibility for the day-to-day management of, investment in and responsibility for payment for the desired outcome. It would allow the clean up of energy creation to evolve competitively between all available techniques to deliver non-polluting energy, even including CCS scrubbed fossil fuel energy. Such an approach would engender real competition between all energy providers and progressively and actually ban “free burn” fossil fuel over the next 50 years according to a strictly prescribed decline trajectory. The equivalent carbon dioxide would similarly decline by being eliminated at source. This approach would guarantee meeting the 50 year CO2 elimination target and energy becomes a normal, competitively priced commodity without special taxation or public subsidies.
    The shape of the energy market would be determined as always by normal market features such as available alternatives in the means of production, running costs, proximity to market, natural geographical and climate circumstances. Different solutions would succeed in each set of circumstances.

  • Only a Conservative politician could claim “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,”. The reality has been that this Government has set out to remove all the positive influence the Lib Dems had on the Coalition that led to all the gains that Lord Barker was able to play a part in securing. The result is an industry in disarray, not knowing which way the wind is blowing so to speak. Amber Rudd is not showing leadership now but instead playing to the anti wind and solar gallery, whilst claiming we are still committed to the same low carbon future. Yes we need a new Conservative narrative on climate change but it needs to be very different to the one playing out in Parliament now.

  • Leadership in environmental issues, pushing ahead with ‘fracking’ for unconventional fossil fuels, whilst increasing subsidises for fossil fuels? As for the COP21 agreement, it is quite worthless, we are going to leave nothing for future generations.

  • Immediately after the agreement was signed the Conservatives announced it was full steam ahead with Fracking. Just a couple of weeks ago The Conservatives finally killed off CC&S in the UK. So, let’s be clear, we have an administration that is resolutely determined not to play a part in keeping well below 2 degrees C

  • David Cameron became the first of the main party leaders to call for the ground-breaking Climate Change Act
    And yet, yesterday we have legislation passed to allow fracking outside the boundaries of National Parks although given the impacts of fracking, one wonders how a mile makes any real difference with regard to air pollution, light and noise and environmental impact. And today, over 100 new PEDL licences.

    Does this Government not understand that a low carbon, clean energy future and fracking are incompatible? Given that fracking cannot possibly make any real input to our energy supply for at least five years, how is this a bridge to a renewable future? How does cutting subsidies for solar, and increasing planning controls for wind measure up against tax breaks for fossil fuels?

    It is time for a new Conservative narrative on low carbon, because at the moment they are saying one thing while doing another.

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