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Simon Evans

Simon Evans

17.04.2015 | 3:15pm
UK policyExpert views: What the general election means for UK climate and energy policy
UK POLICY | April 17. 2015. 15:15
Expert views: What the general election means for UK climate and energy policy

In three weeks, the UK will go to the polls in one of the closest-fought and least predictable elections in a generation. Carbon Brief has already pored over the political parties’  manifesto views on climate and energy.

But the chance of a multi-party coalition make it hard to extrapolate pre-election commitments into future government action. Carbon Brief asked a range of experts for their views on the May 7 poll’s implications, in particular:

  • What are the key climate and energy dividing lines for the election?

  • How do you see potential election outcomes affecting climate and energy policy, post-election and in the run-up to Paris?

Here’s what they had to say:

Jim Watson, research director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex Science and Technology Policy Research Centre (SPRU):

“The large uncertainty about the outcome of the election, particularly the different coalitions that may emerge, makes it hard to predict what the next government’s policy will look like. An important lesson of the 2010 election is that strong manifesto commitments by some parties could be traded off in post-election negotiations if the result is close.

“However, given the recent joint statement by Miliband, Cameron and Clegg, a strong commitment to continued emissions reductions is likely. There is much more uncertainty about specifics. If the Conservatives lead the next government, there would be more pressure to reduce funding for some low carbon technologies – including cost effective options like onshore wind. If a Labour-led government sees its plans through, this would mean significant regulatory upheaval – and a reinforcement of the more interventionist policies we have seen in the past few years.”

Nick Mabey, chief executive of E3G:

“The most important dividing line is over an in/out referendum on EU membership. Key domestic policy dividing lines are the Conservative Party’s intention to stop funding for onshore wind turbines and possibly solar, which will raise bills and undermine any move to a smarter and more decentralised UK power system.

“If the Conservatives form the next government then the EU will be consumed with the Brexit referendum and the “reform” negotiations. This will undermine the delivery of any concerted EU political and diplomatic strategy to deliver a strong Paris climate agreement.

“Any government will face difficult choices over infrastructure priorities and investment. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have made energy efficiency an infrastructure priority which should see spending on fuel poverty and energy efficiency increase after recent cuts. The Conservatives’ plans for more road investment would effectively squeeze out major increases in efficiency spending if implemented.

“English devolution will also be a major focus for any new government. Currently, it is unclear if any party intends to follow the patterns set in Scotland and Wales and devolve substantial powers on energy, smart infrastructure and climate resilience to English cities. In fact, all parties seem committed to greater centralisation in infrastructure planning, which is likely to undermine moves to an efficient, smarter and modern energy and transport system.”

Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter:

“This is a very important election for those that care about progressive energy policies –  whether related to climate, security or affordability.  There is a major divide between the two factions:  the Tory / UKIP scepticism of renewables, climate change and Europe and the Labour, SNP and Green alliance.

“The former is anti-innovation and supportive of incumbents and the current ways of doing things which is an ostrich-like position which will cost Britain’s society dear whilst the latter, unexpectedly, has the possibility of being positive in terms of embracing change and capturing the opportunities of climate change to benefit Britain, and wider society.

“Quite where the Lib Dems fit into this is less clear. The global economics of energy are changing rapidly and Britain is not benefitting from this because the institutional basis of our energy system is not fit for purpose. This has to change, and a coalition of Labour SNP and Green has a chance of achieving this.”

Jimmy Aldridge, research fellow in energy policy at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR):

“Despite top-level consensus between the Conservatives and Labour on the need to secure a positive climate deal in Paris and to implement Electricity Market Reforms including the phase-out of coal, the outcome of the election is likely to deliver very different results.

“Labour would ‘reset’ the energy market – putting in a new regulator, a new market design, and splitting open the big energy companies. The Conservatives would maintain the current market and push firmly ahead with fracking. They’ll end subsidies for onshore wind which probably means an increase in offshore wind to meet EU targets.

“A Conservative-led government would mean less disruption which is good for industry, but we’d keep the old market which is bad for consumers. A Labour-led government would mean a substantial period of uncertainty which will worry industry, but ultimately an energy market that works for the consumer. Whoever wins, the costs of the low-carbon transition will rise sharply over the parliament and this will need to be carefully managed if that programme is to succeed.”

Richard Howard, head of energy and environment at Policy Exchange:

“On energy and climate change, there is as least as much agreement between the main parties (Con, Lab, LibDem) as there is disagreement. All agree the need to decarbonise the economy, although not necessarily the level of ambition (Labour and the Lib Dems support more stretching carbon targets). They also agree that greater state intervention is required in order to secure new investment in energy infrastructure – for example the EMR [ electricity market reform] mechanisms, on which there was an almost unanimous vote.

“However, there are huge ideological differences on how to deal with energy prices, suppliers and markets. The coalition favours a competitive approach – supporting new suppliers to enter the market and promoting customer switching. On the other hand, Labour’s pledges imply even further regulation, the disintegration of the Big Six [energy firms], and could potentially destroy competition in the market.

“The parties will need to make a few things clearer after the election. The coalition partners say they wish to pursue a ‘technology-neutral’ approach, but in reality have spent the last five years making very specific technology choices. Labour’s ambitious decarbonisation plans also seem to contradict its desire to reduce energy prices.

“But the wildcard for this election is the strong possibility of two, three or even more parties having to work together to form a workable government. Depending on the outcome on 7 May, the views of the SNP, UKIP, Greens and other parties could become extremely significant (in general, and specifically on energy and climate policy).”

Tom Viita, senior UK political advisor, Christian Aid:

“The leadership of all the main parties in the UK recognise climate science, support the Climate Change Act and will put great energy into seeking a global deal in Paris. Governments of the world have accepted the evidence of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and the UK has one of the best environments for turning this into meaningful policy outcomes because of its political culture, legislative framework and commitment to evidence-based policy-making.

“The UK presents a model for other countries to follow, and has already been copied by countries such as Mexico. However, the vital ingredient is political will to act at the pace and scale necessary to cut emissions. Amid many competing priorities, the UK needs a prime minister who can rise above it and set a strong direction that other ministers and departments will follow.

“Climate scepticism is an unusually Anglophone phenomenon that does not exist in the media or political cultures of most countries. The UK is also rare among Anglophone nations in maintaining a strong cross-party consensus on climate science and climate action. It is vital that this is preserved over the next five years, and the leaders of all the main parties will need to emphasise that this is a matter of national interest and scientific evidence, not belief or political ideology.

“This is most pressing on the right, where the multiplicity of voices can lead to polarisation. Without strong leadership in the Conservative party – in government or in opposition – the UK’s political culture may start to polarise on the climate debate, leading to political deadlock such as that in the US and Canada.”

Emma Lucy Pinchbeck, head of climate and energy at WWF UK:

“We were delighted to be part of the coalition of NGOs that helped broker the Leader’s Pledge on Climate Change in February. With the election outcome still undecided, it is notable that climate change remains, underneath all the campaigning, an issue on which there is broad political consensus.

“2015 is a turning point year on the road to tackling climate change and to taking the long-term economic opportunities gifted by the low-carbon transition. The negotiations of the UNFCCC [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change]  in December will be a top priority for the UK’s diplomatic core, with climate change also tabled at the G7 and the UN meeting on Sustainable Development Goals this summer.

“Domestically, the next government will be responsible for setting an ambitious fifth carbon budget, and existing policies from the Levy Control Framework to the Renewable Heat Incentive. New policy will also be needed to close the gaps identified by the Committee on Climate Change to meet our emissions reduction targets, with energy efficiency as an obvious contender for attention. The party manifestos overall had some commendable policies on the natural environment and energy policy. We must hope that these remain even through coalition wrangling.

“However the crucial point is not one of policy, but of narrative. If political and public consensus remains solid on the need to tackle climate change, then why are we hearing so little about it?

“There are great challenges ahead in terms of policy ambition. But there are also opportunities through the low carbon agenda to bring some positive vision to an election cycle which has often been narrow in focus – and not a little cynical. We hope to see the profile that these policy areas deserve in the final weeks of the election and in the programme of the new government.”

Robert Ede, associate consultant on energy and environment at the Whitehouse Consultancy:

“Labour have stated that they are prepared to exploit shale reserves, but in the face of ardent opposition, would they pursue it with the same zeal that the Tories have? [We think] this is unlikely – the industry has failed to generate enough political support beyond a few senior figures in the coalition. In the likely event of a hung parliament, Labour may try to form a government drawing on the SNP, the Greens and Plaid [Cymru] to create a Scandinavian style ‘progressive alliance’. If this occurs, a moratorium on shale would seem a likely concession.

“A Conservative-led government would create challenges for Paris. The threat of a looming referendum and subsequent Brexit would diminish our diplomatic power in the climate negotiations; any new energy secretary would struggle to legitimately champion EU targets whilst at the same time his or her government would be embroiled in tense talks over the UK’s membership.”

Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group:

“This is a key election for the UK’s climate and energy policy. Within the first 18 months of the next parliament, important decisions will need to be taken on energy efficiency, the levy control framework, a possible power sector decarbonisation target and the fifth carbon budget. All of these are critical to the UK’s ability to meet its climate targets on time and in a way that is cost-effective and economically beneficial to the UK.

“The overriding question for the different parties will be whether they will provide enough clarity on the UK’s climate and energy policy beyond 2020 to attract the significant investments the UK needs in its energy efficiency and low-carbon infrastructure.

“Whilst there are clearly some differences on the detail of domestic climate and energy policy, the recent climate change pledge signed by all three major parties shows that there is consensus between them on international climate policy. All three parties recognise the importance of getting a strong global deal to tackle the global problem that is climate change. I would expect (and hope) that they would all push equally strongly for such a deal if in government.”

Richard Nourse, managing partner at Greencoat Capital:

“Labour has made energy bills and “rip off” utilities the energy issue of the election, but will need to find a way off that electorally-appealing petard if in government. Energy is not on the agenda for Tories. Greening of electricity generation to hit a 50 to 100 gramme per kilowatt hour carbon intensity target by 2030 will cost around £200 per household per annum [a December 2014 report from the Committee on Climate Change puts low-carbon and energy efficiency policy costs in 2020 at £160 for an average home, or £210 for electrically-heated homes]. The next government needs to accept that and take steps to make it not an issue for those suffering fuel poverty.

“Nuclear and CCS [ carbon capture and storage] are unlikely to be the solution previously thought, and so significantly more renewables will be needed to hit that target. Given all parties are committed to the Levy Control Framework in a deficit constrained world, this will limit renewable generation deployment and could become an issue if costs (technology and cost of capital) do not come down and gas prices remain low. Government signalling is the main driver of the cost of capital, which is the main driver of cost of green electricity.”

Paul Ekins, professor of energy and environment policy, University College London and deputy-director of the UKERC:

“The UK is fortunate in that all the main parties are strongly behind ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction, both at the UK level, as per the provisions of the UK Climate Change Act, and internationally, through the global negotiating process under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This provides much needed policy credibility which has certainly played an important role in securing the high levels of investment in clear energy that the UK has received in recent years, boosting especially the contribution of renewables to UK electricity supply and helping to develop their associated supply chains.

“The challenges after the election will be different depending on who forms the next government. A Labour-led Government will need to ensure that its promised reforms of the energy market and the regulator and treatment of the Big 6 do not choke off low-carbon investment by introducing yet more uncertainty before the last lot of reforms have had time properly to bed down.

“A Conservative-led Government will need to square up to the climate-deniers in its own ranks and elsewhere and maintain sensible deployment of on-shore wind turbines, which remain the most cost-effective renewable energy source. And both major parties will have to find a way of achieving a step-change in the deployment of energy efficiency measures, to ensure that this really is treated as ‘the first fuel’. That is easily the best way to achieve the twin objectives of low-carbon and affordable energy.”

Dr Tim Rotheray, director for the Association for Decentralised Energy:

“Most of the manifestos focus on energy sources and are lighter on energy use. Where the use of energy is considered it tends to focus on homes and final use rather than considering the whole system and industrial energy. The Conservatives’ focus on cost will be welcomed by industry but the promise to remove onshore wind subsidies risks undermining this claim. Labour’s commitment to resetting the market raises the spectre of growing uncertainty, although the plans will be well received by some in the local energy sector who find the current electricity market inaccessible.

“The Liberal Democrats and Labour commit to energy efficiency as an infrastructure priority which will be seen as welcome by those in the demand side sector but given that the evidence points to cutting waste as key to least cost route to emissions reduction, there remains limited detail for a segment of the energy sector that often appears as an afterthought in policy.

“The commitments to the Climate Change Act across three parties holds out some hope for a clear trajectory but stark differences on how the overarching goal will be delivered seems likely to point to substantial divisions under a new parliament, which could make for policy hiatus in the case of no one party having an overall majority.”

Note: The quotes were provided via email and have been very lightly edited for clarity. If you would like to contribute, please email Update 21/4 - We added the views of Tim Rotheray. Update 20/4 - We added the views of Professor Paul Ekins.

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