What does a watertight national climate strategy look like?

intext-flood-blogAs the UK heads to the polls once more, there’s something different this time round. In previous elections, climate change barely got any airtime. Now, as poll after poll shows that people want action, politicians are talking about the climate crisis, and offering voters their prescriptions for action.

How can we judge their efforts? There is a real danger that we will be enticed by glittering offers of ‘solutions’, like incentives for electric vehicles, tree-planting programmes and the expansion of renewable energy. These are all good things to do. Yet they mask a more fundamental problem that I have come to think of as the ‘feelgood fallacy’. It isn’t enough just to ramp up these positive policies. We also need to phase out activities that we know are carbon intensive. The science is clear: emissions will keep on rising if we keep extracting fossil fuels, and keep investing in high carbon infrastructure. In short, we need to do less bad stuff, as well as more good stuff.

Local politicians in Cumbria are ambivalent on climate change
Living in Cumbria, I’ve seen this first hand. Local politicians say they want to be climate leaders. There have been some eye-catching renewables projects and efforts to reduce traffic on the busy Lake District roads. But the county is also proud of the new passenger airport at Carlisle, and now there are plans for a coal mine on the West Coast, which, if built, will result in nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, equivalent to the emissions of a million UK households.

At its heart, climate strategy is staggeringly simple: any country committed to the Paris Agreement needs to stop digging up fossil fuels; stop using fossil fuels as fast as possible; manage land to maximise the storage of greenhouse gases; and prepare for the climate impacts that are already baked in. This is easy to state, but difficult to do, because fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases are woven in to our daily lives, and into the structure of our societies, economies and political systems. This is why politicians duck the question, dodge sideways or distract with promises of new technologies.

At election time, when assessing the competing offers from the political parties, it is crucial not to be seduced by shiny promises, but instead to analyse whether a party’s proposed climate strategy covers all the critical issues.

Ten tests for climate strategy
Here is my checklist of ten questions, which can be used to assess any national climate strategy, irrespective of the social, economic or political circumstances of that country, and irrespective of political inclinations. It is produced with thanks to the many people who have read and contributed to it.

1. Is there a clearly stated long term target, compatible with climate science and international responsibilities, written into law?

2. Is there vocal political leadership on climate change, confident narratives and a healthy debate about strategy?

3. Are citizens engaged, both through democratic means (voting, deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies, wider engagement and consultation) and through the policies themselves?

4. Is there a plan to achieve this target over a clear timeframe (including the near term), distributed across different parts of government, including all ministries and government organisations, including local or state level government?

5. Is there independent measurement, verification and scrutiny?

6. Does the strategy cover all the crucial sectors, ie transport (including aviation and shipping); power generation; housing and buildings; consumption; industry; finance; land use and agriculture; climate impacts and resilience?

7. Is there a transparent and measurable process for the phase-out of fossil fuel exploration, extraction and use?

8. Are the distributional consequences of the plan being addressed – in terms of protection for individuals; different social groups; job opportunities; and local areas?

9. Do financial flows – government funds, the regulations governing private capital and trade, and development aid – support the climate strategy and provide the required investment?

10. Is there a clear strategy for negative emissions, with separate targets and policy for greenhouse gas removal technologies?

This list is still a work in progress, so I would welcome further comments.

For now, I will try to keep a cool head as election fever hits, and check any breathless promises of climate action against these basic requirements.

These questions will be further explored in a forthcoming book by Dr Rebecca Willis, to be published in March 2020 by Bristol University Press: Too hot to handle: the democratic challenge of climate change.

[Image from Flickr courtesy of Phil John]


  • Dear Dr Willis,

    All parties and politicians are ignoring burgeoning developments in advanced nuclear reactors which will impact low-carbon energy policy decisions from 2026 onward, when the breakers are thrown on NuScale’s first 720 MW nuclear power plant [npp].

    In the space of 12 months, GE-Hitachi have moved forward the Commercial Operation Date [COD] for their BWRX-300 Small Modular Reactor [SMR] from 2030 to 2027. 3 or 4 years later, the Nth Of A Kind [NOAK] capital cost will be £1,540/kW, which equates to a capital cost for 3,200 MW of installed capacity of £4.9 billion. That’s as much capacity as the Hinkley Point C npp, with its capital cost now at £23 billion.

    The capacity of the most cost-effective renewable technology – onshore wind – needed to generate the same amount of intermittent electricity, as the 24/7 electricity generated by 3,200 MW of npps, would have a capital cost of £25 billion. That’s 5X more, without considering the additional backup plant costs to overcome the intermittency problem.

    GE-Hitachi are far from being one of the dozens of start-up companies following a multitude of npp designs; they have been npp suppliers for 60 years and are confidently stating this NOAK capital cost in and on all the media platforms. They have also announced a 2 year build programme for a 300 MW SMR, which matches build times for natural gas plant and any sizeable renewable power plant. The playing field, from an investor standpoint, is well and truly levelled.

    Maybe you could consider adding the potential of the BWRX-300 to turn the low-carbon energy technology sector on its head to your list of questions and I would hope, when you see these stark cost comparison figures, it would be quite near the top of the list.

  • fine words but no answers ….. anyone can ask these questions ?

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