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Mat Hope

24.12.2014 | 9:35am
UK policyThe year in UK climate politics
UK POLICY | December 24. 2014. 9:35
The year in UK climate politics

The UK got submerged, an environment secretary was purged, and UKIP emerged. Climate change was on the fringes of many important moments this year, even if it remained in the background of mainstream politics. We revisit this year’s five most significant climate politics stories.

Linking floods and climate change

At the end of 2013 through the first two months of 2014, Britain was engulfed in exceptionally wet weather, with flood warnings issued across many parts of the UK.

Initially, despite some scientific evidence linking climate change to increased risk of flooding, nobody seemed willing to make the connection. Six weeks after the floods first hit the UK, David Cameron became on of the first to discuss the link when he was quoted saying he “strongly suspects” the floods were related to climate change.

Cameron’s statement was followed by a report from the Met Office spelling out the relationship between climate change and extreme weather. The Met Office’s chief scientist Dame Julia Slingo said “all the available evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”, though the full reportmade clear just how difficult it is to unravel the link between weather and climate.

Environment secretary Owen Paterson, the politician charged with shoring up the UK’s flood defences, remained conspicuously silent on the subject. Paterson’s widely criticised management of the crisis was just the start of an annus horribilis for the climate skeptic environment secretary, although on the floods he may deserve some slack – he was recovering from a detached retina at the time.

The floods may yet have a long term impact on the government’s environmental policy. The relentless rain pushed reliance on the Thames Barrier, London’s principal flood defence, to unprecedented levels, prompting London mayor Boris Johnson to call for a review of whether it remains up to the job.

Exmouth flooding.jpg
Waves batter the sea walls in Exmouth, Devon in January 2014. Credit: Shutterstock

Climate skeptic environment secretary shuffled out

Come summer’s sunshine, environment secretary Owen Paterson could add ‘former’ to his job title, as the prime minister gave him the chop in July’s cabinet reshuffle. But Paterson soon found himself given a platform to say all the things he’d ( almost) kept quiet about during his time in office.

Ahead of delivering October’s annual lecture for climate skeptic campaign group the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a number of frontpages trumpeted Paterson’s message that the UK simply can’t keep the UK’s lights on unless MPs scrap the Climate Change Act. Paterson implored the government to implement his four point plan: invest in small nuclear, go all out for shale gas, cut demand, and scrap climate targets. We found a few flaws in the plan.

Scotland has a fossil-fuelled identity crisis

Breaking up is hard to do. So hard, in fact, that in September a slight majority of Scots decided they’d rather not bother and were willing to give the union a go, after all.

In the run up to the referendum, now former first minister Alex Salmond said an independent Scotland would remain committed to getting the equivalent of 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, but would also exploit every last drop of North Sea oil and gas.

40 per cent of the UK’s wind resources are located north of the border, so separating would probably hit the remaining UK’s climate goals harder than Scotland’s. But Scotland’s commitment to maximising the North Sea’s resources meant lots of emissions might have been exported abroad. It was also unclear whether there was the infrastructure, or political will, to allow Scotland to export its renewable electricity surplus south, which would have been crucial to it operating a low carbon energy system.

Anyway, for better or worse, richer or poorer, more or less emissions, it didn’t happen.

Choosing a green government

There’s going to be a general election next May, but from the way the UK’s political parties have been acting the last few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a lot sooner.

While the parties’ positions on climate change is unlikely to be a decisive factor – immigration, austerity, and welfare have that more or less locked-down – it is emerging as one way to differentiate between the candidates.

Labour made something of a belated bid to be seen as climate champions at its party conference in September. In the confines of a Manchester convention centre, the shadow cabinet confidently outlined Labour’s new plan to get the UK’s energy efficiency schemes working, promised to put a decarbonisation target into law, and generally skirted the issue of whether freezing energy prices would be good for emissions.

In stark contrast, a week later, the Conservatives eschewed any mention of climate change in favour of driving home the party’s core message: Cameron, Osborne and chums have a “long term economic plan” and are sticking to it. Perhaps such silence shows the influence of UKIP, which has spent some of the last 12 months arguing against the science of climate change and calling for an end to the UK’s decarbonisation plans.

The Greens meanwhile have gone from not-much-strength to slightly-more-strength, largely thanks to the failings of the Liberal Democrats. The Greens overtook the Lib Dems for the first time in one YouGov poll in December, with eight per cent of voters saying they preferred Natalie Bennett and her team compared to six per cent willing to vote for Clegg’s lot. There’s still no plans to include the Greens in the scheduled national TV debates alongside Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage, however.

Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 11.40.57.png
Credit: UK Polling report

Blackout threats signal new low carbon energy era

The autumn was greeted, as it is every year, with headlines warning of ‘blackout Britain’. But those concerns had an exciting extra dimension this year.

The UK has lots of coal, gas and nuclear plants that are getting old. As they age, they’re more prone to breaking unexpectedly, and that’s exactly what happened this year – five times.

In the last 12 months, two nuclear reactors were unexpectedly shut down, twocoal power plants had to be closed and, most recently, a large gas power station was taken offline when it caught fire.

Such outages are normally not too big a deal. But the UK’s electricity system is in a state of flux. Power stations are closing down due to old age and more stringent pollution rules. At the same time, companies are building lots of renewables, mainly windfarms.

During this shift, the buffer between peak demand for power and the maximum that can be generated (the capacity margin) is expected to shrink. That makes unexpected outages more significant.

But National Grid’s technicians are a conservative bunch and seem or have planned for the worst. That’s partly why it’s overseeing the introduction of number of new schemes to match supply with peak demand, such as the capacity market. Such policies continue to make it unlikely the UK will experience power outages as the country moves from an old, fossil-fuel based system, to a new, low carbon grid. Although we will end up paying for them.

Roll on 2015

So, what will the big stories of 2015 be?

It largely hangs on who walks into Downing Street come June 1st. If electoral rhetoric is to be believed – and it often isn’t – there could be a big difference between a Labour government, and the Conservatives ruling without the Liberal Democrats to check them.

It’s not impossible that the weather will take centre stage again, particularly if there’s more flooding before the election. There’s also the small matter of trying to agree a new global climate deal in Paris in 2015. The UK has so far been a progressive force in the negotiations, if not an outright leader. Domestic politicking during the next six months could well determine if that continues to be the case.

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