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Renewable Energy Policy: The Hard Right or the Easy Wrong?

Will 2015 be considered as a seminal year in tackling global climate change? With the development of renewable energies providing a solution for the world to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels – UK government backing is falling short of its responsibility to ensure climate change is not a problem deputed to future generations.

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With weeks rather than months left of 2015, how much of a challenge to the British Government was the speech given by the UK foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change at this year’s Renewable UK conference?

Sir David King said “2015 will be a seminal year for the planet” as the UK reduces its dependence on fossil fuels. Yet as frequent readers of the PC reports will know, this has been the year when the government chose not to back solar and onshore wind energy as subsidies were drastically reduced.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Around the time the Conservatives won a majority in the Westminster elections, the Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced that she would be “unleashing a solar revolution”.

About a month later George Osbourne revealed changes that some say are creating the “worst period for UK environmental policy in 30 years.” Among the casualties were solar subsides (saving customers about 50p a year); onshore wind farms subsidies (despite proving the most cost-effective manner of producing low carbon energy); an energy efficiency scheme for homes; and the incentive to buy low -emissions cars by offering reduced vehicle excise duty (Friends of the Earth say the incentive is gone as a ‘green’ car costs £1000 more over seven years). Monies instead would be ploughed into Hinkley 3.

The move made unusual bedfellows of the Committee on Climate Change, the CBI, investment groups and the entire renewable lobbying sector which have all, albeit it separately, called on the government to support green technologies.

The man once dubbed by the BBC as the “Environment Secretary against which all others are judged” and placed in the “Top Ten Environmental Heroes” takes the same stance as Sir David King. Lord Deben chairs the CCC and wrote to Ms Rudd last month. He said the government’s policies have been “widely interpreted to have reduced the action being taken to meet the clear commitment to carbon budgets. This has left a policy gap which urgently needs to be addressed as the announcements have raised questions over the future direction of low-carbon policies.”

The UK leads the way in swerving off the low-carbon course and it’s been noticed. In the US, President Obama pledged $1bn in government funds to back new clean energy and energy efficiency projects, along with R&D of new technologies. Former Vice President Al Gore didn’t mince his words in an attack on the UK. “I had a brilliant headmaster when I was a student who was famous for a single saying,” Gore revealed. “He said: over and over again in life, we are faced with the same question, with the same choice between the hard right and the easy wrong. And I think that the wrong choice on support for renewable energy and conservation and sustainability appears easy when financial backers with a stake in seeing things stay as they are, are quite clever and immensely persistent in giving all the reasons why it should not change.”

Perhaps the reason the Conservatives are withdrawing support is that –to put it bluntly- we don’t see the impact of climate change here. It’s wet. A lot. The summers are middling. We have an autumn and spring and apart from the odd rogue daffodil in January, things trundle along as they always have.

That’s not the case in sub-Saharan Africa. Its vulnerability is one of the most pronounced in the world. The majority of studies suggest Africa will suffer more damage from climate change relative to population and GDP than any other region. According to Climate of Concern, some regions in East Africa have become drier due to changes in land use pattern and climate. Water sources are becoming intermittent or disappearing. By 2020, some assessments project that swept Europe in 2003 will look like a “refreshing day”. Parts of Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia would suffer combinations of such high temperatures and humidity that it would be too much for the human body to survive.

But there is an appetite for change. At the end of the summer Islamic leaders inspired by Uganda issued an Islamic declaration on Climate Change, calling on Muslims across the world to plan to end greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to create a 100% renewable energy strategy.

Pope Francis did the same in September, saying, “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” He ignored calls to steer clear of politics and instead clearly and deliberately told President Obama, “I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. I would like all men and women of goodwill in this great nation to support the efforts of the international community to protect the vulnerable in our world.”

Tackling climate change across Africa is essential and has wide reaching opportunities for development. Renewable energy penetration in Nigeria for example is low – wind and solar sources have yet to be fully embedded in strategic plans. There are calls for the government to embrace this by devising incentives to encourage investors as well as creating policy frameworks to deploy renewable energy technology.

Rather than backtracking the UK should return to lead the charge for renewable energy sources. The climate change talks get underway in Paris in December. Unless something gives soon the UK representatives won’t need to worry about climate change – the reception they’ll get will be decidedly frosty.