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Robin Webster

09.05.2014 | 2:00pm
PolicyAnd it’’s goodbye to all that: Robin’’s review of the climate and energy world since 2010
POLICY | May 9. 2014. 14:00
And it’’s goodbye to all that: Robin’’s review of the climate and energy world since 2010

Today’s my last day at Carbon Brief. After three and a half years of dissecting media coverage, delving into obscure energy policies and disinterring appendices from press offices, I’m moving on. As a final goodbye, here’s my pick of the events in the climate and energy debate that surprised, interested or enraged me just a little bit more than the rest.

Energy numbers tennis, the Mail, and three corrections 

It has to start with energy bills.

“HIDDEN GREEN TAX ON YOUR FUEL BILLS,” announced the front page of the Daily Mail in June 2011. The headline fired the starting gun on a media obsession with the impact of subsidies for renewables, nuclear and efficiency on consumer energy bills that was to run for years.

The Mail’s claim that green levies add £200 to consumer bills – given to the paper by a climate skeptic thinktank – turned out to based on an erroneous interpretation of an out of date report. The paper printed a correction following a Carbon Brief complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (In fact, it printed three corrections, as it kept repeating the claim).

But other papers picked the narrative up. Over the last three years we’ve fact-checked more articles than we can count that in some way exaggerate, confuse or misinterpret statistics about energy issues – often consumer energy bills.

Energy bills rising? Cut your energy-savings measures. Oh hang on…

The concern about rising bills is hardly unjustified. By September 2013, everyone wanted to know what exactly was driving energy bills up year after year, and worried about the country’s failure to tackle fuel poverty.

The truth is probably some combination of energy company profits, the rising price of gas, and green levies (which actually add about nine per cent to bills). But, perhaps inevitably following a big media campaign, green subsidies took the first hit. The government weakened a flagship home insulation programme, paid for through consumer energy bills.

In the wake of the cut, plans to insulate harder to reach homes have fallen far behind – and overall, Britain’s energy efficiency programmes continue to languish in the political doldrums.

That’s a problem, as they’re central plans to keep energy bills down and cut emissions in the future. It seems daft to me.

Renewable energy moves from theory to reality 

Coal and gas still provide the vast majority of the UK’s electricity. But the country’s in the middle of a major expansion of renewable power – from just three per cent of energy supplies in 2009 to 15 per cent in 2020. In this context, it’s perhaps not that surprising that the media debate has shifted from the theory of climate change, to the reality of a changing energy system.

There have been some unexpected changes. Back in 2009, when former energy minister Ed Miliband launched the government’s shiny new Renewable Energy Strategy no-one really expected the UK to increase its renewable energy capacity by a factor of five in a decade. But it might just make it.

On some fronts, the renewable energy uptick has been startling. Last year, we looked at the growth of solar power, with rooftop installations increasing from a few thousand to over 420,000 in just three years. Other renewable power technologies – like lagoons – are also showing surprising potential.

Gas versus wind 

But the switch to a low-carbon economy could be derailed by political arguments. We looked last year at how energy policy was turning into a war over wind, with policy developments caught in the cross-fire between Conservative and Lib Dem coalition partners.

At the moment, Chancellor George Osborne is preparing to square up to government advisor the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) over government targets for cutting emissions in the 2020s. Osborne wants to weaken the targets, giving the country the freedom to rely more heavily on gas. The CCC says that if he does so, the country’s going to fail to cut emissions in line with the 2008 climate change act.

Osborne’s enthusiasm was at least partly spurred by the discovery that the UK has a significant shale gas resource. Questions about whether shale gas really will reduce consumer energy bills, cut greenhouse gas emissions, use up too much water, pollute the atmosphere or leak methane into the atmosphere dominated last summer, when anti-fracking protests erupted in a quiet village in East Sussex.

On most of these points, suffice to say it’s complicated. We’ve written more than 30 articles examining the various question, and we’re still going.

Taking a lead? 

Osborne’s argument is that the UK should cut our carbon emissions “no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe”. A decade ago, the country’s government was promoting the UK as a world leader on tackling climate change. But times have changed.

One of the most interesting talks I attended in the last few years was by John Ashton, the UK’s special representative on climate change between 2006 and 2012. In a subsequent interview, he told Carbon Brief:

“The UK’s climate diplomacy is among the best in the world. But it all rests on the proposition that we will do ourselves what we are encouraging others to doâ?¦ [A government] can’t stand for an effective response to climate change if it is not engaging in a serious effort to build a carbon neutral energy system within its own economy within a generation or so.”

Getting a political mandate 

Last month, development agency Oxfam labelled the relentless focus on energy bills “destructive” – distracting attention from the need to save lives by tackling climate change.

I agree. But politicians need to feel they have a political mandate to act, or they’re going to get kicked out of office.

In the last few months, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released three reports reiterating that climate change is unequivocal and dangerous interference in climate system likely. The last two reports attracted limited media attention, however.

Direct experience may have had more effect on public opinion. Major flooding at the beginning of this year pushed the changing climate to the front of mind and onto the front pages – prompting a bump in concern about the issue. We don’t know how it’s going to play out over the next few years – but the role the media plays, and the accuracy with which it presents these issues, is going to matter.

My replacement is Dr Simon Evans, previously of the ENDS Report. Follow Simon on Twitter on @drsimevans. Enjoy, Simon. 

And finally…here are a few of my favourite blogs:

How to write a Daily Mail article about climate change 

Can the government legally change the fourth carbon budget?

Solar power: how renewable energy’s Cinderella got a fancy new dress and went to the ball 

How PCC complaints on climate and energy are won and lost 

Degrees of change: the IPCC’s projects for future temperature rise 

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Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email. By entering your email address you agree for your data to be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy.