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David Cameron in Brussels
Credit: Drop of Light/Shutterstock
12 May 2015 10:30

Updated – Election 2015: What will a Conservative majority mean for climate and energy?

Carbon Brief Staff

12.05.2015 | 10:30am
UK policyUpdated – Election 2015: What will a Conservative majority mean for climate and energy?

Update 13/5 – Amber Rudd has been appointed as secretary of state for energy and climate change. Rudd has been   welcomed by green groups. She will be   joined at the department by Andrea Leadsom, who has called onshore wind’s benefits ”  hugely exaggerated“. Lord Bourne is  expected to replace junior minister Baroness Verma, though Verma’s ministerial profile remains on the department’s website.

With all 650 seats having declared their election results, the Conservatives have secured 331 seats, five more than they needed to form a majority in the House of Commons and return David Cameron to Downing Street.

The outcome defies expectations of a hung parliament and sees the UK return to single-party government after five years of Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. The junior coalition partner had, under Ed Davey and Chris Huhne, held the secretary of state position at the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) since 2010.

The result means the UK is set for an in-out referendum on EU membership in 2017, or even sooner. Cameron wants to renegotiate the terms of membership and has promised to campaign for the UK to stay within the EU if he is successful. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has  ruled out EU treaty changes before November 2019.

The other big story of the election has been the Scottish National Party’s almost total victory north of the border, winning all but three seats.

Carbon Brief brings you a summary of the key Conservative manifesto pledges on climate and energy plus reactions and comments.

Climate and energy pledges

The top line on the Conservative approach to climate and energy issues is that the party will stick to the UK’s overarching carbon targets, while focusing on minimising costs. We’ve summarised some key messages from the Tory manifesto in this graphic:

Conservatives CB

The manifesto said:

“We will cut emissions as cost-effectively as possible, and will not support additional distorting and expensive power sector targets.”

This means a target to decarbonise UK electricity supplies is unlikely, even though it is backed by the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change.

In February, Cameron signed a joint pledge with his Labour and Liberal Democrat counterparts, promising to uphold UK carbon targets, to push for an ambitious UN climate deal and to phase out unabated coal-fired power stations. There is as yet no date set for a phase-out.

On energy, the manifesto promised to “keep your bills as low as possible”. Shares in large UK power generators have soared following the election result, in relief that Labour’s planned energy price freeze will not happen according to the Financial Times.

The manifesto pledged to ensure “reliable” energy supplies and to “help you insulate your home”. It promised to support “low cost [efficiency] measures” and insulate a million homes in five years. This would be a reduction on the million homes insulated since 2013, a rate that was in turn far below levels before the 2010 election.

More controversially, the manifesto pledged to end support for onshore wind. It said:

“We will end any new public subsidy for [onshore wind] and change the law so that local people have the final say on windfarm applications.”

The manifesto also promised to “continue to support the safe development of shale gas” and back a “significant expansion in new nuclear”. The Infrastructure Act, passed earlier this year, requires the government to assess how the development of shale gas could fit with UK carbon targets. On the eve of the election Cameron said there would be “no dash into [shale gas] technology without the safeguards in place”.

The Tories have not explicitly set out their plans for airport expansion, with various senior Conservatives having previously opposed a third runway at Heathrow. Allegra Stratton, political editor of BBC’s Newsnight, has tweeted “sources” say the Tories will back a new runway, though she doesn’t say where.

The manifesto said the Conservatives would “continue to support development of North Sea oil and gas”. The Tory-backed Infrastucture Act requires the next government to draw up a strategy to “maximise the economic recovery” of UK oil. The Conservative manifesto also promised to “[build] 1,400 new flood defence schemes, to protect 300,000 homes”.

You can read a full run-down of the manifesto pledges here.

Reactions to the election result

One key question surrounds the future of DECC, both in terms of the department itself and in terms of who will lead it, if it remains in place.

A source at DECC tells Carbon Brief:

“Mood wise [within the department], it’s calm… We have no idea who the new secretary of state will be. We certainly haven’t been told to expect machinery of government changes to the department in a Conservative majority scenario, so it would come as a surprise to everyone I know.”

Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance and a potential Conservative candidate for London mayor tells Carbon Brief that Nick Hurd and Matt Hancock are potential candidates to take the helm at DECC. Other contenders for the role include former environment minister Richard Benyon and former energy minister Amber Rudd, according to RTCC.

Greg Barker, the out-going Conservative MP who was the climate envoy to the prime minister and former DECC minister, tells RTCC that UK climate influence will be increased by the election outcome. BusinessGreen asks if the Tories will offer “climate policy competence of chaos”, depending if Cameron is able to “face down [Tory] climate sceptic backbenchers”.

Marc Williams, BBC Newsnight’s election producer says the slim Conservative majority could leave Cameron at the mercy of right-wind rebels.

However, Liebreich tells Carbon Brief Cameron’s hand will be freed by an end to coalition government and the poor election return for UKIP, in particular the resignation of its leader Nigel Farage after failing to win in Thanet South.

Liebreich tells Carbon Brief:

“What’s interesting about this result is it enormously increases the degrees of freedom… [David Cameron] will no longer have to appease the headbangers [within his own party].”

Ben Caldecott, co-founder of the Conservative Environment Network and an associate fellow of thinktank Bright Blue tells Carbon Brief:

“The fact that DECC was a Lib Dem fiefdom during the coalition made it susceptible to political attack from some conservatives. That was an unfortunate inevitability. A majority Conservative government with a team of Conservative ministers in the DECC could quite conceivably get a lot more done, particularly in terms of enabling power sector and energy efficiency investment.

“Commentary from some of the environmental NGOs and others saying that a Conservative government ‘untempered by the Lib Dems’ is necessarily bad for climate and environment is simply wrong.

“One early priority should be the systematic and phased closure of the UK’s coal-fired power stations – this would reduce air pollution, send an important signal to international partners in advance of the Paris negotiations, reduce our dependency on imported Russian coal, and be one of the most cost-effective ways to quickly reduce carbon emissions.”

A source at DECC tells Carbon Brief:

“It’s still too early to say what the ramifications [of a Conservative majority] could be. All three major party leaders signed up to the pledge to continue to honour the aims of the Climate Change Act and to address climate change, domestically and internationally. It’s widely acknowledged that Cameron gets it and is on board. Certainly there’s no anticipation of any diversion from the existing goals.”

Nick Mabey, chief executive of E3G, tells Carbon Brief:

“The unexpected UK election result will have huge, but initially indirect impacts on energy and climate change. The EU will be distracted by the UK renegotiation weakening their ability to drive a strong climate agreement in Paris. If the UK votes to leave the EU then expect a complete revision of UK climate and energy policy.

“If the UK does not vote for ‘Brexit’ then the Eurosceptic majority in the Tory party will remain a drag on attempts to create a single European energy market and strengthen delivery of EU clean energy and climate change goals. However, there is too much legal, business and political momentum invested in decarbonising the UK economy to expect major shifts in domestic policy, beyond immediate cut-backs in support for onshore renewables and energy efficiency. However, over the course of a Parliament there is a real risk the UK could drift seriously off track in delivering carbon budgets, precipitating an intense political fight over maintaining targets.”

Michael Grubb, professor of energy policy at University College London tells Carbon Brief:

“For energy and climate policy the election provokes more questions than answers, and two main ones stand out:

“First, freed from the moderating hand of the Lib Dems, does Tory policy now risk being captured by sceptical and anti-renewables rhetoric? The good news is that there is unlikely to be any appetite to undo the Energy Market Reform, but a lot of devil remains in the detail of its implementation and progression. The appointment of a new Energy Secretary will be one to watch closely.

“Second, how will an EU referendum impact on energy and climate policy – and vice versa? The UK is already committed to expanding interconnection, and the EU Energy Union is making a serious push in its own review of market arrangements. We face the real prospect that just as the UK is moving towards far greater technical and policy integration with the EU, the politics may take the UK out of Europe, with implications that are hard to fathom.”

Emma-Lucy Pinchbeck, head of climate and energy at WWF UK, tells Carbon Brief:

“The economy will be stronger if the new government acts on climate change. The Conservative manifesto contained some strong proposals to protect our natural resources and put Britain on course for more sustainable growth. Moreover, as a signatory to The Climate Coalition Leader’s Pledge, David Cameron is committed to progressing policy in line with the Climate Act, fighting for a global deal on climate change, and driving forward the low carbon transition. We will support the Prime Minister and his new Government to make good on these pledges, so that Britain may realise the economic benefits of acting on these ink-and-paper promises.”

Jim Watson, research director of the UK Energy Research Centre tells Carbon Brief:

“In brief, I expect that a Conservative government will remain committed to the Climate Change Act and to international climate action. But there are questions about the specific strategies and policies they will favour to meet climate change targets, and balance this with other goals such as energy security and affordability.

“Like many others, I’d expect less emphasis on onshore wind, and more on other technologies and measures – though that is in tension with ambitions to reduce consumer bills. A re-think on energy efficiency policy is also likely, given the poor performance of the Green Deal. I also think that the UK’s effectiveness within the EU will be affected by the plans for an EU referendum, even if the eventual result is for the UK to remain within the EU.”

Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, says:

“Defying the polls, the Conservative Party looks very likely to be having a majority for the next five years. As an organisation whose business members come from across the economy and have a collective turnover in excess of £300bn, we urge the new government to build on the promising growth of the environmental and low-carbon sector seen in the last five years and put the sector at the heart of its long-term economic plan.  According to the latest Government figures, the UK’s low-carbon economy now employs around 460,000 people, with a turnover already reaching £122bn in 2013, twice that of the auto-manufacturing industry. Building on this success is critical to the UK economy’s long-term competitiveness and growth prospects.

“We welcome the Conservative Party’s commitments in its manifesto to support the UK’s Climate Change Act, work towards a strong climate change deal in Paris and continue to reduce the UK’s emissions cost-effectively. Delivering on these objectives will require working constructively with the Committee on Climate Change and taking a pragmatic approach to the deployment of a wide range of energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies, including  those that are becoming increasingly cost-effective such as onshore wind.”

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

“Like most people keeping an eye on the polls,  I am completely shocked by the results. I had been thinking we might finally get an alliance of parties which takes climate change and its institutional needs seriously. Now, I fear, energy policy in GB may not just be more of the same but possibly even worse than it was if the Tories follow through on their anti-wind rhetoric and if we ‘leave’ Europe.

“Energy systems, most notably in Denmark and Germany,  are transforming before our very eyes into more efficient, secure , sustainable, integrated, decentralised systems. Meanwhile GB and its society are missing out, and having to pay for, our Governments’, Regulators’ and Incumbants’ continuing support for the status quo and seeming inability to embrace change.

“What energy change that is happening in Britain is coming from communities and new businesses who are recognising that the top-down, centralised governance is doing nothing for them. At this moment, this is where I see the only hope for the environment coming from.”

Paul Ekins, professor of resources and environmental policy at the  UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, tells Carbon Brief:

“The next five years will see a fascinating exercise in how to reconcile seemingly inconsistent energy and climate policy objectives: commitment to decarbonisation and the launch of a new shale gas industry; determination to reduce emissions at least cost, while restricting or ruling out the most cost-effective renewable energy source, onshore wind; and wanting energy to be affordable while being resistant to the public investments in household energy efficiency that could make it so for the poorest households.

“Clearly it will take a Secretary of State of real stature to meet the statutory obligations on carbon emissions under these conditions. The appointment will be, and should be seen to be, one of the most important in the new cabinet.”

Damian Carrington, Guardian head of environment writes:

“One potential advantage of a majority Conservative government will be less political risk for investors, who were made nervous by the feuding between the coalition partners, and that means projects will be cheaper to finance.

“Energy efficiency is key to both cutting emissions and energy bills but the coalition’s Green Deal was a farce and worryingly the Conservatives have shown no sign of significant reform. Furthermore, the Tory aversion to building regulations will mean homes will be less energy efficient than many want.”

Richard Nourse, managing partner at Greencoat Capital, tells Carbon Brief:

“There should still be a huge majority in the house in favour of the Climate Change Act and its implementation. But with Hendry, Barker, Sandys, Byles, Yeo etc all not continuing, we must insist the PM honours the Valentine Day’s pledge and puts into DECC someone seized by the decarbonisation challenge and not beholden to the potentially ‘bastard’ ( cf John Major) deniers and luke warmists. The next five years must set the foundations for 2030 electricity decarbonisation.”

Andrew Warren, honorary president of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, reflects on the election result for Business Green. The site also has a pre-election comment piece from Amber Rudd, Conservative energy minister in the previous parliament, reiterating her party’s support for the UK Climate Change Act.

The wind industry has issued pleas for the Conservatives to reconsider their opposition to onshore windfarms.

Potential candidates for Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

Speculation on who would take the helm at DECC began even before the election result came in. Here is some background on four potential candidates for the role.

Matt Hancock

Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, was appointed minister of state at DECC in July 2014. He was also made a minister of state at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as minister for Portsmouth. In 2012, Hancock was a co-author of a Conservative Free Enterprise Group report that called for fracking and lower wind subsidies. He also signed a 2012 letter by Tory MPs that called for lower wind subsidies. In March, it was revealed that he had received a £18,000 donation from Neil Record, whom the Guardian described as a “key backer of the UK’s leading climate sceptic lobby group”.

Amber Rudd

Rudd, MP for Hastings and Rye, was appointed parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change in July 2014. Rudd has repeatedly referenced Margaret Thatcher’s legacy on climate change in her speeches in her time as a minister.

Ahead of the Lima climate conference last year, she told BusinessGreen:

“I want to move the whole negotiations forward. Everybody keeps saying – such as in the meeting on Sunday – there’s no point waiting until Paris. That was the problem with Copenhagen: they waited too long. We’ve got these key landmarks along the way, such as capitalising the Green Climate Fund, getting to Lima, getting a draft text, getting commitments for the first quarter of next year.”

However, on the eve of the conference, she was ordered not to travel to Lima by the Conservative whips so she could be present for a counter-terrorism vote in the Commons.

Nick Hurd

Hurd, MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, was the minister for civil society in the last government before resigning in July 2014. He has also served as a member of the Environmental Audit Select Committee and was chair of the climate change sub-group of the Conservative Party’s Quality of Life policy review commission, which was commissioned by David Cameron when he took over as the party leader in 2006.

Hurd is on the steering committee of the Conservative Environment Network. In 2006, he condemned Lord Lawson, a climate sceptic, writing on Conservative Home: “It is disappointing to see one of the great intellects of the Conservative past skip so superficially around one of the big issues of our time.”

Richard Benyon

Benyon, MP for Newbury, was a parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from May 2010 to October 2013. In 2014, he spoke out against Conservative climate sceptics such as Lord Lawson, telling RTCC:

“I disagree with [him on climate change]. I thought he was an outstanding chancellor and he has got a brilliant mind, but I disagree with him on this.”

He added that he and other Conservative MPs had met leading scientists who “quietly explained to us how serious all this is”.

Main image: David Cameron in Brussels.
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