Amid the Brexit chaos, UK climate policy risks being totally derailed

We can't let Brexit derail efforts to avert catastrophic climate change, writes the Prospect union's Sue Ferns.

As events at Westminster take an ever more surreal turn, and the UN climate talks in Poland proved dispiriting, there has never been a more urgent time for the global political class to show leadership and lay out a credible and just pathway to a low-carbon future.

While the UK has notched up some successes on decarbonisation – most notably in the power sector, where emissions have fallen steeply over the past five years – we are still on track to miss our legally-mandated climate targets by a wide margin, and are falling behind our key competitors in the race to develop and implement low-carbon technology.

The current UK government has been big on words and policy statements, but has delivered little in terms of meaningful positive action.

In fact, since 2010, progress towards decarbonisation has in many respects taken a serious step backwards.

Whilst UK carbon emissions have fallen by around 22% since 2012, this is almost entirely due to the sharp decline in coal-fired power generation: emissions reductions in other parts of the economy have been much less dramatic, and transport emissions have actually increased over the past five years.

So why has progress not been better? Well, a big part of the story is the curtailment, or outright abandonment, of a range of programmes aimed at reducing emissions, from domestic energy efficiency schemes like the Energy Company Obligation and Green Deal, to renewables support like the Feed-in-Tariff and the Renewables Obligation.

This ideologically-driven push towards a hands-off, private sector-led approach to decarbonisation has resulted in a dramatic fall in investment in low-carbon infrastructure: new renewables investment was down 56% in 2017, hitting the lowest level in ten years, while 2018 has seen the nuclear new build programme completely derailed by the Treasury’s opposition to direct public investment in essential energy assets. This has left a gaping hole in the UK’s future low-carbon power portfolio.

So, what can be done to change this dismal picture? As one of the main representatives of workers in the UK energy sector, Prospect has just launched a new set of policy proposals on renewables.

It includes a call for government to change tack: to recognise that the delivery of our vital national energy infrastructure cannot simply be left to the free market.

Government must take a lead and commit tangible public funds to new low-carbon energy projects. This is not simply about ensuring the right levels of investment; it is also about ensuring that investment is paid for in a fair and equitable way.

The current free market approach places the burden of paying for new infrastructure on energy consumers, via their energy bills, a highly regressive form of taxation that hits the poor hardest.

There is another key reason why greater state involvement in delivering low-carbon energy is so vital. For many of those who work in the UK energy industry today, there is a growing concern about the type and quality of jobs that will replace those connected to fossil fuel use as we transition to a low-carbon economy. And those concerns are understandable, given some of the worrying news coming out of the renewables sector.

Trade unions have already exposed how offshore renewables companies are bypassing UK workers and paying migrant labourers well below the minimum wage to build new wind farms. Meanwhile, available figures from the offshore wind industry show that the rate of accidents is four times higher than in the offshore oil and gas sector.

This is unacceptable and unsustainable. To win broad public support for the radical changes needed to meet our climate targets, the government must show that moving to a low-carbon economy does not mean a transition to insecure, dangerous jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

With proper leadership, the low-carbon transition can deliver high-quality, secure employment, and having the public sector in the driving seat on new energy projects, with a strong voice for the workforce, would ensure that the creation of good quality jobs, especially in those parts of the country most affected by the phase-out of fossil fuels, is a key priority.

We can’t put climate change on pause while we sort out Brexit, and the window of opportunity to avoid devastating climate change is closing rapidly.

A public sector-led approach, prioritising good jobs, is the best and only way to deliver a just low-carbon economy. The government must act now to start making that vision a reality.

Sue Ferns is Senior Deputy General of the Prospect union.

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