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The UK’s approach to tackling climate change

There has been, to adopt a phrase, a lot of news of late: the referendum on the EU, the impact on all of the political parties, a new Prime Minister and a new structure for Government and its ministerial team with countless deviations, contortions and digressions in between (and more, no doubt, to come).

When it comes to climate change, three things remain unchanged:

  • First, the risks from insufficient global action to tackle climate change and the important role for the UK in the global commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The UK has successfully reduced domestic emissions by 38% since 1990 while growing the economy by over 60%. My Committee’s most recent progress report to Parliament sets out how we can continue on that path.
  • Second, the broad cross-party support for action to tackle climate change. The current Government’s agreement with my Committee’s recommendation about the fifth carbon budget (to reduce UK emissions by 57% by 2030) means that first Labour, then Conservative-Liberal Democrat, and now Conservative Governments have backed the framework created by the Climate Change Act 2008. An Act that, from its inception, was widely supported across the UK and national parliaments.
  • Third, the opportunities for British workers from worldwide action to tackle climate change. Economic success comes from innovations that anticipate the world we will live in. That world will be shaped by many forces, but critical underlying drivers will be the requirements to reduce emissions and to grow energy supply whilst reducing costs. As a result, we will see significant growth in industries such as electric vehicle manufacturing, manufacturing of solar, wind, marine and other low-carbon energy technologies, construction of low energy buildings and heating and cooling systems, alongside the development of new materials, new insurance and financial products and new approaches to industrial production. The UK is well positioned to exploit these opportunities.

The Committee on Climate Change welcomes the appointment of the new Secretary of State, The Rt. Hon. Greg Clark MP. The new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is well positioned to ensure that the UK exploits its strengths in low-carbon industries and delivers the carbon budgets. The department will need to produce industrial strategies, an energy strategy and an overall vision for business that incorporate tackling climate change as one of the key drivers of future business success. The new department should also be well-placed to ensure the UK’s strong research base in climate change and technology supports that vision alongside domestic and international progress to tackle climate change.

The discussions about Brexit and a British approach to the environment and climate change outside the EU should, rightly, re-examine whether we can reduce emissions more efficiently or more effectively. These important discussions must build on the significant success we have already achieved, and the world-leading approach the UK has taken to date.

In conclusion, there is now overwhelming evidence of a ‘fixed carbon budget’ for total greenhouse gas emissions that humanity can produce without risking significant cost and disruption to our lives. There may be disagreement and uncertainty about the size of that budget, but the important point is that it is finite. Given current trends in emissions whether that budget runs out in the 2030s, 40s or 50s, it will quickly run out if there is insufficient action and we will bear the costs of that inaction. The new department has an opportunity to help tackle this issue comprehensively and with a speed that is commensurate with the challenge.

I recently saw an excerpt from an 1851 railway guide to the English Midlands. It reads as follows:

The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; the natural dead flat is often broken by high hills of cinders and spoil from the mines; the few trees are stunted and blasted; no birds are to be seen, except a few smokey sparrows; and for miles on miles a black waste spreads around, where furnaces continually smoke, steam engines thud and hiss, and long chains clank, while blind gin-horses walk their doleful round.

So much has changed in just over 150 years. Changes which would have been thought impossible but have brought prosperity and the improved quality of life that we enjoy today. For all that change, over a relatively short period, the risks from climate change are even more pressing.

An important opportunity faces the new Government and the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy: to deliver industrial and energy policy that incorporates domestic and global action to tackle climate change. My Committee will monitor progress, and this new department will be crucial to the pace of progress.