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UK climate change masterplan – the grownups have finally won

Actor Peter Capaldi at Westminster tube station where Greenpeace, WWF and the Marine Conservation Society have launched a new campaign supporting offshore wind as the future for UK energy
The clean growth plan signals an end to the fossil fuel age and builds on the UK success of offshore wind. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

The grownups have finally won and everyone in the UK, from those in cold homes to those on polluted streets and in flooded towns, will benefit. The most important aspect of the UK government’s new clean growth strategy is its unequivocal statement that tackling climate change and a prosperous economy are one and the same thing.

This has been clear to many for some time, including Philip Hammond, if not his predecessor George Osborne. There is no long-term, high-carbon economic strategy because the impacts of unchecked climate change destroy economies, as Lord Nicholas Stern puts it.

But the Conservative party has long been swinging between the green dream and fossil-fuelled fantasies. David Cameron went from pledging the “greenest government ever” to dismissing the “green crap” in three years. Recent years have seen one green policy shredded after another, destroying confidence among the businesses we need to deliver a low-carbon economy.

The new strategy published on Thursday signals a new, if belated, beginning. It is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age: it is highly notable that the government plan omits any mention of fracking, having previously been its cheerleader.

The government had to produce this plan under its own climate laws to explain how it will get on track to meet the nation’s legally binding carbon targets in 2030 and beyond. But ministers have rightly made a virtue of the plan’s necessity.

The proposals themselves are ambitious but lack concrete suggestions in many areas. However, ambition always precedes action and there are plenty of groups, not least the government’s official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, who will hold ministers to account.

If the government’s efforts to cut emissions from buildings have been slow, it is now taking seriously the need to address energy efficiency. Energy that isn’t used – negawatts – are by far the cheapest way to cut both emissions and energy bills. But as the vast failure of the green deal showed, efficiency is hard to make happen and it is here where firm plans are most urgently needed.

Along with heating, transport also needs urgent action – emissions here have been rising. There is plenty in the new plan to harness the surging market for electric vehicles, though little of it is new. Ministers have also once again failed to explain how expanding aviation with Heathrow’s third runway fits with its climate change plan.

Electric cars will need clean power and the UK’s electricity grid is already greening fast – coal power has fallen from 40% to 2% in the last five years. The new plan rightly builds on the UK’s success in dramatically driving down the cost of offshore wind power, yet it all but ignores an even cheaper source – onshore wind. It seems that even the conviction that the green economy is the UK’s future is not enough to face down the rural Tory-voting minority who continue to tilt at windmills. Solar power also seems destined to suffer the same fate.

Despite looking these gift horses in the mouth, and ignoring tidal power, the plan promises yet more cash for those with their snouts in the nuclear trough. The hyper-expensive Hinkley Point farce has not dulled the appetite for more new nuclear power and it intends to plough by far the biggest sum of its innovation funding into the one energy technology where costs are always rising.

But the biggest worry is the very limited support for carbon capture and storage, the technology that takes emissions from fossil fuels and buries them under the ground. CCS is seen as absolutely vital by the Committee on Climate Change, the National Audit Office and the UN’s climate science panel and the UK’s emptying North Sea fields are perfectly placed carbon reservoirs. But CCS gets only about a quarter of the investment of nuclear and just a tenth of the £1bn promised in the plan so abruptly canned by Osborne in 2015.

Trees are natural carbon stores and the new plan pledges to “establish a new network of forests in England, including new woodland on farmland”, which offers a tantalising glimpse of the radical change to farm subsidies that may follow Brexit. But there is no mention of the reduction in meat consumption deemed essential in beating global warming by scientists.

However, while many of the details are missing, the clean growth strategy marks an important and vital step forward for the UK. As the prime minister Theresa May says in the plan’s foreword: “Clean growth is not an option, but a duty we owe to the next generation. Success in this mission will improve our quality of life and increase our economic prosperity.” The strategy is now crystal clear – it is time to deliver.

This article titled "UK climate change masterplan – the grownups have finally won" was written by Damian Carrington Environment editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 12 October 2017 12.32pm

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