Is Theresa May a climate leader?

37321447925_722215f265_bIn her speech in Ottawa yesterday, Theresa May reiterated the UK’s commitment to phasing out unabated coal (ie where emissions are not captured) by 2025. This was the prime minister’s first public statement on climate policy since taking office after the Brexit referendum last year. Although the Conservative manifesto mentioned it, the prime minister has been worryingly tight lipped, leading to concerns about her commitment to climate leadership. Brexit has slowed down domestic policy making, but this statement asserts the UK’s aspiration to be a global climate leader, even as it prepares to leave the EU.

Carbon emissions from coal have fallen in the UK by 75 per cent in the past decade and, in April, we celebrated the country’s first coal-free day since the industrial revolution. Theresa May’s reiteration that coal will be phased out is undoubtedly a positive step but, without clear policy guidance to back it up, it still only remains a political statement.

The government ran a consultation on the coal phase out, following its original commitment in 2016, but the results still haven’t been published. Well-designed policy is needed to make sure the phase out is done efficiently, removing any perverse incentives that might yet support coal until 2025, particularly when there are cleaner alternatives.

The government’s position as a global leader on climate will be tested by how it deals with the following:

1. Coal subsidies: the ODI, in its latest review of EU subsidies for coal, revealed that the UK spends £385 million on average annually subsidising coal through various means. The most expensive of these measures is the capacity auction mechanism that has allocated £453 million to seven coal plants between now and 2020.  A clear decision to remove these payments for coal is vital to the phase out strategy.

2. Support for coal overseas: the prime minister said yesterday, “We have confirmed our joint commitment to supporting the global transition away from a reliance on coal as an energy source and, once again, the UK and Canada will lead the way.” This appears in clear contrast to UK’s funding activities overseas. An analysis from CAFOD and ODI shows the UK spent close to £600 million supporting coal based projects in developing countries between 2010 and 2014. This is irreconcilable with the UK’s stated position on climate. Instead, policy should proactively target the growth of renewables which currently only receives a fifth of the total spent on overseas energy infrastructure.

3. Support for Druridge Bay coal mine: the government is facing an important decision, whether or not to support the mining of three million tonnes of coal from this mine in Northumberland, which it would export to global markets. This project is facing steep opposition from local groups, expressing concerns about local impact on environment and health. Approving the project risks undermining the whole principle of the coal phase out strategy, potentially emitting an additional 10-20 million tonnes of CO2 into the global atmosphere.

4. Working with nations like Canada: the government should collaborate with international agencies and other countries, like Canada, to accelerate coal phase out in Europe and globally. Following the UK’s announcement, Canada has also committed to phase out coal by 2030, making it only the third G7 nation to set a clear target date. Theresa May has said, “We are both countries with ambitions to lead on the world stage and progressive values that underpin those ambitions – values including the importance of free trade, and respect of international law.” To express this sentiment in any future UK-Canada trade partnership, dual commitment should be made to the ambition laid out under the Paris Climate Agreement and leading the clean energy transition.

In the wake of the recent devastating extreme weather events around the world, the need to tackle climate change is clearer than ever before. Phasing out coal in the UK should be bolstered by the much awaited Clean Growth Plan, which should create the incentives necessary to spur investment in green infrastructure. Theresa May’s legacy could well be dominated by Brexit and its fallout, but the truly enduring story of the success of her premiership could be around how she leads the UK into the future on climate and low carbon development.

[Image: PM visits Canada by Number 10 from Flickr Creative Commons]

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