3 Priorities for Theresa May’s solo UK Climate Policy

Removing uncertainty for investors, and staving off a growth in climate skepticism needs words first and actions later.

Before June 23rd I wrote about how climate change offered a chance for a positive campaign. A vision of collaboration to tackle global problems. That didn’t work. Never mind the growing venn diagram of climate skepticism and eurosceptics, climate policy makers must play the hand available. Government don’t want policymakers to wallow, they want practical actions and opportunities to move forward. Here are three priorities for climate policy Post-Brexit*.

EU Emissions Trading Scheme

The first impact on climate policy was an immediate fall in the price of carbon, as uncertainty grew over Britain’s place in the EU-ETS. A low carbon price is bad news, it doesn’t incentivise investment in low-carbon technology, and moves the world away from a global, unified carbon tax. It is in the UK’s interests to remain part of the EU-ETS, a system it has been integral in building, but membership is politically challenging and may hinge on our relationship with the single market. Norway for example is linked, but the UK’s high carbon floor price means it would want to be more involved in the process than the Norwegians, and have a voice in policy development.

The first task must be to include membership of the EU-ETS in our negotiations and to prioritise membership.

Renewable Targets and the Conference of Parties

For a cross-border problem a combined target makes sense, but it’s also sensible to leave countries to work out their own ways of reaching those targets.
COP21 has yet to be ratified and fallout could threaten global targets

Climate policy in the EU has always been a challenge between national policy and supra-national targets. Climate change is a perfect example of the EU principle of subsidiarity; that policymaking is left to the lowest possible level. For a cross-border problem a combined target makes sense, but it’s also sensible to leave countries to work out their own ways of reaching those targets.

The UK, despite being one of Europe’s leading emitters, also has its most ambitious reduction targets. Britain's current target of 57% is significantly higher than the EU’s 40%. With the UK leaving the EU, this leaves a significant hap in the bloc’s reduction targets.

The big problem lies in the ratification of agreed targets from COP21 in Paris. Hailed as a success for carbon reduction, the EU committed its target as a bloc. The question is now whether the EU will stick to it’s 40% target, and if so will that include the UK’s efforts. If not the UK needs to immediately submit it’s own independent target to the COP for ratification to ensure it’s commitment to climate change is front and centre.

Britain has always led in soft power on climate change. The Climate Change Act (the first of it’s kind) is used worldwide as a model for legislation. Leaving will dent our diplomacy, immediately committing to a new target will help claw some back. Committing to the EU target as an EU+ action could also help boost negotiating power at future international conferences.

The Domestic Agenda

Energy security is already under scrutiny with Theresa May’s posturing on Hinkley. Energy generation is likely to form a key part of Government’s business policy in the sparkly new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Whitehall must make sure the corporate knowledge and talent remain from the abolished Department for Climate Change. Although no department was allowed to prepare for Brexit, they’ll be the ones most knowledgeable to push forward low-carbon policy after it.

Nick Hurd has a job to ensure low-carbon policy is made across the board

Without its own department climate change must become pervasive across other policy areas, (something I’ve written about here). Public health strategies, tackling air-pollution or heatwaves, infrastructure investments in transport and investment in low-carbon business must be viewed as win-wins for all departments.

Climate policy can’t be viewed purely as a money-maker. Shifting to a business department means climate policy may only take place where it can generate money, like innovation. This could mean new carbon-intensive energy like fracking isn’t off the table if it offers returns for investment. It also means climate policy might not be a priority where it saves rather than generates money, for example in efficiency gains. The upfront cost of mitigation or adaption tactics means a low-carbon UK is balancing is not guaranteed.

Following ratification of its target the Government must lay out a clear plan of how to get there. A threatening economic slowdown will mean less money available for climate policy, but a commitment to invest to grow must also include investing to save money in the future. Whether that’s protecting the population from flooding or ensuring their food and health security.

And what else?

With Britain’s future in the energy Union less likely there will be tricky negotiations over the future of energy sharing with the EU. Whether that’s through bilateral agreements with countries developing renewables faster, or acting as a bloc to reduce Russia’s power from it’s oil reserves.

There’s the future of collaborative science and our ability to research climate change and develop solutions. We need clarity on the future of intellectual property and patents. What happens for example if badly needed battery technology is developed from a UK-EU joint project?

Much of the immediate work needs to be on communication to stave off uncertainty. The Government should immediately lay out it’s commitment to either a european wide reduction target or ratify it’s own. It should commit to a future of low-carbon generation to reduce investors worries. And it should commit to climate change being part of checks and balances on all policy now it no longer has it’s own department.

Leaving the EU doesn’t mean the UK doesn’t care about climate change but it needs to make that clear to everyone who thinks otherwise.

*In future a geological event caused by the earth shattering lies tole in the campaign will allow scientists to define this as a new epoch.

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