The right in America may deny climate change but conservatives in the UK are taking action

Just days after she entered Downing Street, Theresa May's Government passed the fifth carbon budget into law, setting an ambitious target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2032 and she appointed two of the most committed green conservatives in Parliament to lead on climate change in the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 

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The Independent Online

On Friday, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. His scepticism of manmade climate change is well-known. His tweet from 2012 that global warming was a hoax designed by China to harm American manufacturing has been shared many times online. After Trump appeared to acknowledge “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change in a post-election interview, his Chief of Staff swiftly clarified that the administration’s default position is that climate science is “mostly bunk”.

Over in the UK, Trump’s victory is being cheered enthusiastically by a fringe movement of climate sceptics. They urge Theresa May to follow his lead and abandon attempts to decarbonise the economy. James Delingpole has written that his elections marks “the beginning of the end of the Green Blob”. Sunday Times columnist Dominic Lawson has suggested that if Trump pulls the US out of the Paris Agreement, “perhaps a British cabinet might dare to question Westminster’s religious faith in the Climate Change Act.”

But the Prime Minister has rightly ignored these voices. Just days after she entered Downing Street, her Government passed the fifth carbon budget into law, setting an ambitious target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2032. She appointed Greg Clark and Nick Hurd to lead on climate change in the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, two of the most committed green conservatives in Parliament. And rightly so, because the case for reducing carbon emissions has never been stronger.

First, the science. Average surface temperatures across the world in 2016 will make it the hottest year on record. Of course, on its own, this proves nothing: The naturally occurring “El Niño” weather event in the Pacific earlier this year caused temperatures to spike. But the trend of rising temperatures over several decades provides compelling evidence of the climate change phenomenon. In the UK, the eight warmest years on record have all occurred since 2002. With each year that passes scientists are becoming more knowledgeable about the risks. For instance, research this year has shown climate change has already reduced the number of bird species in the UK.

Second, the economics of clean energy. In over 30 countries, onshore wind and solar are already cheaper than fossil fuels. In just six months last year, competitive power auctions saw global offshore wind prices fall by 22 per cent. Here in the UK, the latest government estimate of the cost of different technologies finds that the next set of onshore wind and solar projects commissioned in the UK will be cheaper than gas. This changing dynamic is why clean energy exponents should beware of expensive projects like Swansea Bay tidal lagoon and Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which undermine the economic case for clean energy.

The spectre of power blackouts from a lack of renewable output on cloudy, calm days is receding. Technology capable of storing electricity is advancing rapidly. Analysts forecast that the per-unit cost of storage could halve by 2020. And with electric vehicles soon to penetrate the mass market, millions of households could have their own battery able to store electricity when weather conditions are favourable and deploy during peak demand.

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Bright Blue research last year showed we no longer need old, unreliable, and polluting coal to keep the lights on. The remaining coal-fired power stations can be comfortably taken offline by 2025, leaving plenty of time to build the extra gas, renewable power, energy storage, and energy efficiency to fill the gap.

Third, the politics. Already a clear majority of people in the UK believe in climate change – including over 50 per cent of those that vote Conservative. Bright Blue will shortly be publishing a report analysing further the nuances of conservative views on the environment. But as warmer temperatures, more extreme weather events, and rising sea levels start to become more frequent, support for climate action is very likely to increase. Flooding, for instance, is already costing the UK economy on average over £1bn a year, and the Government believes this could rise to £6.8bn by 2050.

There is no prospect of sceptics controlling the climate policy of the main right-of-centre party in the UK as they do in the US, where ironically anti-Trump and pro-Trump Republicans find scant common ground in their opposition to this agenda. In the UK, they are few in number and lack any real hold over the Government’s programme. But their association with the conservative movement risks contaminating the centre-right brand. Conservatives should be loud about disowning the increasingly irrelevant ideas of these fringe elements. If we do not, as the climate science and economic opportunities of clean energy become clearer, there could be an electoral price to pay.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

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