The soft underbelly of climate change policies

Brits worried about climate change have reasons to be pleased. Our emissions fell last year, global emissions may be turning around, and the Tory government has a new Energy Secretary in Amber Rudd who seems genuinely to care about climate change.

But with the Lib Dem green handbrake gone from government, the UK’s emissions cuts are under attack and may well be facing a greater threat now than they have any time since reducing emissions became government policy.

Now, the principal line of attack is one that people worried about climate change often don’t seem to take seriously, perhaps because it’s not one that comes from clichéd right-wingers. Instead of critics opposing climate policies because they, supposedly, hurt business or growth, the argument is that climate policies directly hurt the poor. This week the Spectator’s editor, Fraser Nelson, made that case.

(Don’t be distracted by the article’s nonsense about climate science: that’s just a stalking horse. No-one serious thinks there’s any reason to doubt what the IPCC says about the relation between emissions and warming)

The logic of Nelson’s argument is that squeezed households of the UK shouldn’t pay more to address climate change than their equivalents in other countries, and that taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be wasted on subsidising inefficient green schemes like biomass boilers. Nelson is respected and influential and you can see the appeal for a Tory government that will increasingly try to occupy the political centreground up to the 2020 election.

One implication of this for green policy has already emerged with the plan to curtail the Renewables Obligation subsidy for onshore wind. Since this is the cheapest form of green power, and, if Nelson’s argument wins, it couldn’t be replaced with more expensive forms (tidal barrages, offshore wind etc), the only option seems to be going all out for fracking in the hope it’ll be a success and bring down costs in the short term.

Fracking probably wouldn’t breach our climate targets until after 2025, by which time ministers in the current government will presumably be gone so won’t have to face the consequences of that breach. But such decisions made now – in the name of protecting the UK poor from the costs of energy policy – would make it much harder and more expensive to get back on target for 80% cuts by 2050.

A similar argument is also made by the right about the supposed costs of climate policy for the world’s poor. It holds that the pursuit of renewable energy, being more expensive than fossil fuels, is slowing down development and so doing harm in poorer counties. Use of developing countries’ land to grow biofuels is criticised on a similar basis.

The logic of this is, again, that the focus in these countries should be on reducing poverty rather than emissions (ironically, some argue against emissions cuts in rich countries on precisely the (false) premise that poor countries aren’t cutting their own emissions – the two arguments together would amount to no-one ever cutting emissions).

The challenge for people worried about climate change is that these critics are onto something. Poorer households in high-emitting countries shouldn’t pay more to limit climate change if wealthier households can pay instead. We shouldn’t be prioritising spending taxpayers’ money on poorly structured subsidies for green heating of rich people’s homes. And the poorest people in the world certainly shouldn’t see slower development and less secure access to food than they would if their countries followed a high-emitting path to development.

Climate policy advocates already make some arguments to address all this. An IPPR report this week showed how subsidies for renewables should be restructured to avoid costs falling on poorer households. And the international arguments are easy to refute: no-one I know of now advocates biofuel use if it threatens forests or food supplies, and renewable energy projects are subsidised internationally so they don’t cost more than plants that burn fossil fuels (although even then, we should indeed look at whether the subsidies could be better spent on development, particularly to increase resilience to a more unstable climate, with greater emissions-reductions coming from wealthier countries).

But still, those arguments aren’t yet sufficiently developed by people worried about climate change, nor are they made often enough.

Increasingly, it is people arguing against emissions cuts who claim to be on the side of the poor – campaigning against environmental activists who are presented as blindly pursuing climate policies with no regard for their cost. It’s becoming the soft underbelly of climate policies, vulnerable to attack in the way the earlier battlegrounds (climate science, feasibility of emissions cuts) no longer are.

While there’s much to cheer in the UK’s efforts to reduce emissions, people worried about climate change need to recognise that the arguments have moved on. The new attacks are putting them in danger of being cast, absurdly, as the ones who don’t care about the poor – and giving an excuse for the watering down of the successes of the last decade.

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