The Observer view on the Tories’ shameful record on climate change | Observer editorial

Since the election, the government has performed a series of dizzying U-turns on its green policies

President Obama reputedly remarked of the forthcoming UN climate change summit: “I’m dragging the rest of the world behind me to Paris.” Later this month, 149 nations will congregate to agree national targets for reducing carbon emissions. But Britain, once regarded as a global leader, has relegated itself to the ranks of those reluctantly being pulled along in Obama’s wake.

Since the election, the government has performed a series of dizzying U-turns on its green policies. It has announced cuts to subsidies for onshore wind and solar energy; scrapped the zero carbon homes standard; ended the green deal for home insulation; and reversed its promise to exclude national parks from fracking.

There is no question that the green policy framework has been ripe for reform. Some subsidies have been unnecessarily generous and the green levies that pay for them are highly regressive, costing poor households six times as much of their income than the most affluent.

But to scrap many subsidies and regulations altogether will be hugely damaging to Britain’s efforts to reduce emissions and is antithetical to Mr Cameron’s 2010 pledge to lead the “greenest government ever”. It is vital that any framework provides long-term certainty to encourage private investment in green technology. Any reform therefore needs to be gradual and signalled well in advance to maintain industry confidence. But to the alarm of green NGOs and business groups alike, the government has ripped up its green policy framework overnight. This will have a long-term effect on investment, and not just in the green sector: business will question whether they can take government commitments at face value.

The implications for the UK’s targets to reduce carbon emissions are serious: the independent advisory committee on climate change has warned they are now at risk. And internationally, the timing of the about-turn could not be worse, with global leadership more important than ever in the lead up to Paris. The success of the summit is predicated on countries pushing each other to go further in signing up to targets enshrined in national legislation than they would have done without international co-operation. The targets on the table represent huge progress since the 2009 Copenhagen summit, but more will be needed to limit global warming to the internationally agreed target of two degrees.

International leadership will be critical in achieving this, but the UK has stepped back from the leadership role it previously played. George Osborne has explicitly argued that Britain should be going no further than other countries in reducing global warming. If the US, China and India took this attitude, the Paris summit would quickly result in a race to the bottom. The frustration the US is feeling with Britain was evident in Al Gore’s September speech in London: a damning indictment of Britain’s new backseat approach.

The Tories have appeared cynical on climate change. In 2006, freshly elected as party leader, Cameron grasped on the green agenda as a way of modernising the Conservative brand. In coalition, the Lib Dems strongly pushed the green policies. So it has only really been since the election in May that the utter lack of Conservative commitment in this area has become so apparent.

The green agenda is problematic for the leadership, with Tory backbenchers worried about the unpopularity of onshore wind and green energy levies. But it is clearly not an area Cameron is willing to push: climate change barely got a mention in his conference speech last month. This is in stark contrast to the second-term Obama, who is using the fact he no longer faces re-election to reinvigorate his leadership on climate change.

It sets the UK out of kilter with the global dynamic: growing numbers of business leaders embracing the need for action, and countries such as China now part of the international consensus. The Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s recent speech to Lloyd’s on the financial risks of climate change was a signal that the debate had reached the zenith of business thinking.

All national leaders have to manage the tension between domestic politics and international affairs. But whether on climate change or Europe, Britain increasingly looks a country for whom short-term domestic politics always trumps international relationships and global co-operation. Our lack of leadership to slow global warming is not just bad for our planet’s climate – it is bad for our long-term national interest.


Observer editorial

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