From the TUC

So what is the role of government in tackling climate change?

16 May 2011, by in Environment

For want of listening, the greenest government ever has taken some heavy flack in the past week.  Hard on the heels of Jonathan Porritt’s audit of environmental progress in the first year of the coalition as “unavoidably depressing”, FoE  called on Chris Huhne to resign if the government fails to back new binding climate targets for 2027. And manufacturers with high energy costs are warning of serious job losses, leading Vince Cable to argue that more ambitious climate targets were anti-competitive.

The TUC supports ambitious climate change policies. Motions to Congress make clear that consultation with stakeholders is a vital part of the just transition to a low carbon future. None of which commits us to throwing jobs away.

Industries like steel, glass, ceramics and chemicals are vital to a low carbon economy. Think of steel for wind turbines, glass for double glazing. A year ago, our joint study with the Energy Intensive Users Group (EIUG) warned of the cumulative burden of climate change policies. This was a serious, evidenced based report, not policy made by “crowd sourcing”. Senior officials, Ministers and others were briefed that these industries are carrying the greatest burden of polices to reduce energy use.  There’s little senses in exporting jobs and emissions to our competitors.

We said that “the cumulative impact of these policies has not been fully understood by government and it is essential that an assessment should be made as to whether the UK’s climate change policies are appropriately balanced.” A year on, for want of listening, government now has a wholly avoidable problem with its carbon budgets. And there is still no government-led low carbon manufacturing strategy that that addresses these issues.

Porritt argued that the coalition’s positioning – anti-regulation, hostile to planning and regionalism, shrinking the state, etc – “makes it significantly harder to deliver on the greenest government ever pledge”.

Green MEP Jean Lambert got it about right last weekend at the annual Trades Council’s conference in Peterborough: “You have to deal with social justice and environmental justice when tackling climate change.” Secure, decent work and a living wage are as much part of the transition to a low carbon economy as cutting emissions. Losing jobs to competitors who make, say, cheaper steel but require more energy per tonne does nothing for climate change globally. There is a role for government in balancing the needs of industry and the environment, but securing social justice in the transition. Earlier this year, the TUC warned the government of the distributional impact of its proposed electricity markets reforms on fuel poverty and on the energy intensive industries. But these issues were given scant attention in the consultation paper.

So this week, perhaps tomorrow in Cabinet, the coalition will respond to the latest proposals from the Committee on Climate Change. Three carbon budgets were set in 2008 but now the UK must agree a fourth for the period 2023 to 2027 as the government attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, compared with 1990 levels.

Commentators are suggesting a compromise may be reached – agreeing to the 50% cut in CO2 by 2027, but deferring other recommendations to 2030. The Committee’s report encourages the UK to take a global leadership position, setting the UK’s goals within “Global emissions pathways” based on the latest climate science and the international context. “Our conclusion is that the climate objective and the global emissions pathway underpinning our first report recommendations remain appropriate.” If the UN’s attempts to reach a global deal on climate change have one main weakness is has been the lack of global leadership, notably from the EU. The Committee’s advice for the fourth carbon budget is to set the UK on a pathway to 80% cuts in greenhouse gases below 1990 levels by 2050, with maximum 2050 emissions of 160 MtCO2e, compared with about 580 million tonnes now. “It also reflects the need for deep emissions cuts at global and therefore UK levels through the 2020s, and the rising carbon price (e.g. to £70/tCO2, real terms £2009, by 2030) that this implies.”

These are huge challenges for industry, including some £16 billion of new green energy investment every year for the next two to three decades, dwarfing the £3bn budget of the Green Investment Bank. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Green Economy Council , due to discuss a Green Economy roadmap at its second meeting on 7 June, should have been in regular session all year, if only to ensure a greater sense of shared responsibility for these vital decisions, including defining a role for government.