Thursday, 28 August 2008

Climate change: are the Liberal Democrats getting it right?

It’s now a year since Zero Carbon Britain, the Liberal Democrats’ policy mega-paper on climate change was published. [Declaration of interest: I was the chair of the policy working group] Since then, a lot has happened in the fast-moving climate change debate – from the Bali conference to the publication of the EU climate and energy action plan to the G8 climate declaration and the UK government’s renewable energy strategy; from the biofuels backlash to the government’s climbdown over road taxes and the fiasco over selling British Energy.

Still, Zero Carbon Britain is standing the test of time. First, we said that, on the basis of available scientific evidence, chiefly the IPPC’s reports published in 2007, it could be necessary to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions approaching 100 per cent by the year 2050, in order to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a safe level. But a reduction in emissions of the magnitude needed will only happen if developed countries such as the UK took the lead by cutting their own emissions - hence the Liberal Democrats’ policy commitment to achieving zero carbon emissions over the long term. Our Commons and Lords teams have tried to amend the Climate Change Bill, to set a target for an 80 per cent in UK CO2 emissions by 2050, in place of the government’s “at least 60 per cent” target.

There seems little doubt that the government is aiming much too low. Last September, Gordon Brown ordered a review of the UK target. Lord Stern, author of the ground-breaking Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change (2006) now says that he was too cautious in calling for all greenhouse gas emissions to be stabilised at 450 to 550 ppm by 2050 and the correct target is lower than 500 ppm (in Zero Carbon Britain, we said 450 ppm). He also called for an 80 per cent in UK CO2 emissions by 2050.

Earlier this year, NASA’s James Hansen, one of the pioneering climate change scientists, concluded that the world should aim to reduce CO2 emissions (not all greenhouse gas emissions) from around 385 ppm now to below 350 ppm, around the same level as in 1990. This goal is backed by the Tallberg Foundation, the Stockholm Environmental Institute and a global campaign, For worldwide CO2 emissions, that figure represents a 100 per cent cut, off a 1990 base: “zero carbon”.

Second, whilst there have been some significant developments, most of the key policies out in Zero Carbon Britain remain highly relevant. In many areas, we are still ahead of the debate. Examples are: feed in tariffs for renewable energy sources and small-scale micro-generation; new incentives for renewable heat technologies; reforming the EU ETS; new energy efficiency standards for new homes; and ‘green mortgages’ to fund improvements to existing homes. In others, such as speeding up the deployment carbon capture and storage technologies and reforming aviation duty and vehicle excise duty, the policy papers on the EU and transport for autumn conference bring key aspects of our programme up-to-date. In short, the basic mitigation framework set out in Zero Carbon Britain remains the correct one.

And whilst the politics may, arguably, have become more difficult, Liberal Democrats have stuck to our principles, criticising the government over its car tax flip-flop, advocating the introduction of road user charges and, now, calling for the Britain to become energy independent within the EU, with an “Apollo project” for energy independence, as part of the push for a zero-carbon Britain.

So that’s it, then? All’s well in the Liberal Democrat garden of Eden? We can all sit back, safe in the knowledge that we are still the greenest major party?

Let's not be too complacent. The UK has a legal obligation under EU law to source 15 per cent its energy (electricity, transport, heat) from renewable sources by 2020. That implies a renewable electricity target of at least 30 per cent by 2020 (already supported by the Lib Dems); however, as the changes required for transport and heat may be too challenging, the target for electricity may be closer to 40 per cent. 

Nick Clegg’s new energy paper calls for a “credible strategy to meet the UK’s 2020 renewables targets”. Feed-in tariffs would speed up the deployment of renewables and small-scale microgeneration. The new proposal for a Renewables Delivery Authority deserves support. But the party’s thinking on incentives for renewable heat needs further deepening. So do our policies for promoting low carbon innovation (see also below) and, possibly, the commercial deploment of carbon capture and storage. Following the Gallagher Review, we may need to review our policies on biofuels. The parliamentary debates on the Planning Bill may have muddied the Lib Dem message on tackling the barriers presented to renewables by the planning regime. And we need to remember that these issues cannot be separated from the need to have a credible, long term price for carbon.

There may be more reasons to have a re-think. James Hansen and his allies believe that “350” – CO2 targets of 350 ppm -- needs to be achieved “within decades”. That could require more radical policies than even the Lib Dems have advocated to date. Hansen advocates quickly phasing out coal use and a moratorium on new coal burning plants except where CO2 is captured (here, or thinking is very similar to his), rapidly adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon and a rising tax on fuels contributing greenhouse-gas emissions, with the revenue passed back directly to citizens.

We also need to take account of new challenges to existing lines of thinking. In the spring, Professor Roger Pielke and two colleagues argued that we cannot take for granted (as the IPCC has) that most of the needed reductions in CO2 emissions will happen as a result of “spontaneous” innovations. They say that the energy intensity of the world economy is no longer levelling out or decreasing, mainly because of the way China and India are developing. 

Pielke et al. concluded that climate change policies need to do more to create the conditions in which innovations can occur, achieving big improvements in the production and use of energy, starting with most energy-intensive sectors. (See also here) Likewise, Jeffrey Sachs argues that the link between economic growth and higher global emissions needs to be broken, by using new energy technologies.

The bottom line: a much larger commitment to energy technology research and development and technology transfer, to help China and India reduce the impact of their programmes of coal burning. Whilst the case for increasing deployment of existing clean energy technologies remains strong, R&D and technology transfer are key areas where Liberal Democrat policy, for the international, EU and UK levels, needs to develop. This might be part the “Apollo project” that we really need.

Yes, the Liberal Democrats are still the leading party on climate change. As always, however, we still have work to in order to deserve that title. There is, after all, no issue that is more important to get right.

No comments: