Christian Wakeford: Why we need a Cabinet Minister for Net Zero

3 Sep

Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South.

As the MP for Bury South, in the so-called “Red Wall”, I have no doubt about the need to drive down emissions.

I am a supporter of our Conservative manifesto commitment to Net Zero by 2050, and like many of my colleagues in Parliament, my focus is on finding practical and affordable policies which will allow us to live more sustainably.

Some have recently questioned our Net Zero commitments, but poll after poll shows increasing public concern over the environment and a desire for faster action.

85 per cent of the British public are concerned about climate change, while the environment is now the third biggest priority for the public, behind healthcare and the economy, with 33 per cent saying it’s the most important issue.

In my constituency, I held a pre-COP26 “environment forum” for local people. It was a great opportunity to hear their views, concerns and hopes about our efforts to tackle climate change.

However, throughout the forum it was highlighted that government of all levels is notoriously bad at working cross department and this leads to either duplicated working or watered down and overcomplicated projects.

This will only hold back the action they want to see. The suggestion of having someone oversee action on climate change, from a cross-departmental basis, was regarded as efficient and sensible.

My constituents are right. It’s clear that we will need a senior Cabinet Minister for Net Zero to oversee this transition – ​working directly with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Every sector must become more sustainable – and government has a big role to play in setting the right framework.

You only have to look at the example of housing. According to Green Alliance, whose Net Zero Policy Tracker comes out this month, homes account for 16 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and require substantial reductions. We need joined-up policy to ensure home decarbonisation is fair, whether it is on retrofitting old houses or building standards for new homes.

The Future Homes Standard, for example, should be brought forward from 2025 to ensure new homes built today are the greenest they can be. Not only will it be better for the homeowner, it will also save the Treasury and taxpayer money in the long-run, cutting out the need to subsidise expensive retrofitting down the line. A Minister for Net Zero could ensure our transition to a more sustainable economy is as quick and efficient as possible.

Currently, Alok Sharma, who is doing a brilliant job as President Designate of COP26, sits around the decision-making table as a Minister in the Cabinet Office.

This adds extra weight to the Government’s green credentials and demonstrates that we are taking our climate conference hosting responsibilities seriously. But after COP26, he could be out of a job and there is a danger that the impetus generated by hosting the UN climate change conference will be lost.

As part of our COP26 legacy, a Cabinet Minister for Net Zero can show the world how to lead cross-government action on the matter. They can also help knock heads together within government and act as both a convener and an elected spokesperson.

Not only that, they will be answerable to Parliament, providing extra scrutiny and coverage of the most pressing and challenging issue we face as we build back better from the pandemic. My constituents approve – and I hope the Government will too.

Voters are suspicious of electric cars because politicians let them down over diesel ones. It’s not just a question of price.

18 Aug

As most people know by now, a large part of the Government’s plans for Net Zero involves convincing the nation to drive electric cars. The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 – so the consumer doesn’t actually have much choice in the matter.

That being said, the Government is having a number of issues selling its vision to voters around the country. None of this was helped over the last two weeks when Allegra Stratton, the spokesperson for COP26, revealed to Times Radio that she drove – shock, horror! – a third-hand diesel Volkswagen Golf.

Soon after Alok Sharma, President of COP26, was asked what he drove – to which he also answered diesel. Despite his assurance that he does not “drive it very much”, this has not impressed the electric car lobby, nor those wondering why they should buy electric if COP26’s most famous faces aren’t on board.

As COP26 draws closer, the Government will have to get better at promoting electric cars, as well as countering objections to them. The most obvious worry consumers have is the expense. Buying a car isn’t cheap, after all, so people will feel anxious about having to switch (especially when there’s been so much talk about people having to replace their gas boilers).

Then there’s the charging issue, which Stratton hit upon in her interview. She said she needed a diesel vehicle to visit elderly relatives “200, 250 miles away”… sometimes with small children in the car. “They’re all journeys that I think would be at least one quite long stop to charge”, were her words – sentiment that many people will relate to.

One underrated concern in all this is whether electric cars are another government fad, as was the case with diesel in 2001. Many will remember the “dash for diesel” in this period, during which Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor, introduced a new system of tax for petrol-powered cars, in the name of environmentalism, and slashed duty on diesel and reduced company car taxes on this type of vehicle

It led to a four-fold increase in the number of diesels, which has since been associated with thousands of premature deaths a year. Confidential Treasury files have since shown that Tony Blair’s government was aware of the damage these cars do to air quality – yet pressed ahead, mainly because the optics would look bad (through penalising diesel drivers).

At the time the files were discovered, Edmund King, president of the AA, said “This will only heighten the sense of injustice felt by millions of people who bought their diesel cars in good faith”. And it’s this sentiment that takes us back to electric cars. A lot is being asked of the consumer, so they need reassurances that electric cars are here to stay.

As James Frayne, who writes for ConservativeHome and has spent a long time researching public attitudes to Net Zero, tells me: “Cars are integral to most workers’ daily lives and they’re expensive to buy and run. People therefore really pay attention to political comment on cars and mistakes have consequences. Politicians’ u-turn on diesels is seared into the public memory and undermined confidence that Governments will see Net Zero policies through.”

So the Government needs to sell electric cars – and their longevity too. 

Chris Skidmore: Net Zero will mean nothing unless we can convince the highest emitting countries to change also

11 Aug

Chris Skidmore MP was Science Minister 2018-2020 and Energy Minister in 2019. He is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center of Government at Harvard Kennedy School.

Two years have passed since the UK became the first G7 country to legislate for “Net Zero”. Since then, over 70 per cent of the world’s surface has made a commitment to neutralise their carbon emissions by 2050. Still disagreements persist as to how exactly Net Zero can be achieved, or even how it should be defined.

With the target likely to come under increasing focus in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow, now less than 100 days away, already research is demonstrating that companies’ “carbon offsetting” strategies are not only inadequate, requiring a land mass five times the size of India to plant trees, they may also end up causing more harm than good – as the carbon emitted from the wildfires burning in US forests especially planted to sequester carbon now becomes further part of the problem rather than the solution.

With these debates raging alongside this summer’s wildfires, it is clear an effective strategy to achieve Net Zero remains in a state of flux. It’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to take up a research post as a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, looking in detail at how we can not only achieve Net Zero most effectively, but also to question whether the target is the right one, and what mitigating factors need to be put in place to account for unknowable events in the future— in the next 29 years, global change, war, natural disaster, could all sweep Net Zero off the map.

We need not only a strategy, but an insurance policy too. For every policy, policymakers must also have due regard to the fact that for every action, there will be reaction, just one of the plethora of unintended consequences that have to be guarded against. Having signed Net Zero into law as then Energy Minister back in 2019, I’m acutely aware that unless the idea of transformation and change works with local communities, the risk of a backlash to any green policies could end up causing delay and dither.

For the UK’s own Net Zero strategy, already we are witnessing the beginning of a transformation towards a green economy, with enormous potential to further regenerate post-industrial communities as a result- as has been highlighted by several contributors in ConHome’s series on Net Zero. But we all know that even if the UK achieves it’s own Net Zero ambitions, it will mean nothing unless we can convince the highest emitting countries to change also. And it will be in Asia that Net Zero will either succeed or be broken altogether.

One just has to look at the numbers to realise that without China and India onboard, the ability to tackle climate change will become a losing battle. With an estimated 70 per cent of global carbon emissions coming from cities, over 52 per cent of the world’s urban greenhouse emissions come from just 25 cities.

23 of those cities are all based inside the People’s Republic of China, with the worst being Handan, Shanghai, Suzhou, Dalian and Beijing, all with greenhouse gas emissions higher than 130 megatons of CO₂ equivalent. According to IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality organisation which works with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-Habitat, and Greenpeace, 148 out of the top 150 most polluted cities in 2020 are in Asia.

Alok Shama is rightly using his position as COP26 President to call for a global end to coal, yet Chinese and Indian buy-in to this programme will be essential for its success. While pledging in 2016 during the Paris Agreement to reach peach CO₂ emissions by 2030, China built more coal power plants in 2020 than the entire world retired.

Already China has nearly four times as many coal power plants than the next largest country, India. In 2020 alone, China’s coal usage accounted for 76 per cent of the global new coal capacity, adding 38.4 gigawatts directly from new coal plants. Moving forward China is currently building an additional 88.1 gigawatts of power from coal, with another 158.7 gigawatts of power from coal power plants having already been proposed to the central government.

These are the simple facts that anyone who wishes to reduce global carbon emissions faces. The geopolitical reality facing any Net Zero strategy is that China’s growth will continue to define the 21st century. There is no choice but to work together with China to achieve joint successful outcomes to reduce carbon emissions.

Playing the blame game on carbon emissions is ultimately pointless as it achieves nothing. It is not a weakness either to recognise that we all have a shared future on the earth, and we must build partnerships that share how we can deliver transformations that can prevent drastic climate change before it is too late.

If China fails to reduce its greenhouse gases, we all fail. If ever there was a need for a “Nixon in China” moment, we need COP26 to deliver it if Net Zero has any chance of success.

Sam Hall: The Government must secure tougher emission-reduction commitments at this year’s COP26. Here’s how.

28 Jan

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

It is hard to overstate the centrality of COP26 to UK domestic and foreign policy this year. It will be the most significant international summit of 2021 and the most important set of climate negotiations since the Paris Agreement in 2015. Having failed to plan properly for a global pandemic, the world still has time to mitigate this potentially much greater threat to our security and prosperity. At COP26, the UK has an opportunity to direct and shape this critical global effort, and in the process strengthen its own national mission towards net zero and post-Covid economic recovery.

The political context for COP26 is, on the whole, favourable. The Biden administration has made climate action a priority for American diplomacy. Last year, a slew of major economies followed the UK in setting net-zero targets, including Japan, China, South Korea, and the EU. But economics, rather than politics, are increasingly driving climate action. The costs of clean technologies, particularly solar, wind, and batteries, continue to fall, thanks to innovation, scale, and competition, and good green jobs are being created along the way.

That being said, there are a number of tricky challenges that Alok Sharma, President of COP26, must navigate. Despite new climate commitments from China and others, some big emitters, such as India and Russia, are still reluctant to up their game. And the finance flowing towards clean energy and nature-based solutions is still well short of what’s needed, undermining political support for climate action among developing countries whose fiscal resources have been badly depleted by Covid.

The Government’s primary goal at COP26 must be to secure tougher emission-reduction commitments from nation states. In Paris five years ago, countries agreed a set of climate goals: to limit the global temperature rise to well below two degrees, and to pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees. But the national pledges that countries made towards achieving those global goals were, and remain, insufficient. Despite lots of recent progress, we’re still on track for more than three degrees of warming by the end of the century, according to the UN.

To deliver the Paris Agreement goals, new national commitments must include both short-term targets, which are important for limiting the cumulative emissions that drive the greenhouse effect, as well as long-term net-zero targets, which are needed if countries are to stop contributing to climate change altogether. They must include concrete plans that deliver those targets while also creating green jobs and clean growth. Developed countries must also follow the UK in honouring their commitment to allocate an annual total of $100 billion for climate finance for developing countries.

Alongside targets and plans, the Government should champion some sector-specific campaigns – such as the phase-out of coal power stations or combustion engines, or the transition towards more sustainable agriculture. Thanks to successive Conservative governments, the UK has strong commitments in all these areas. COP26 is an opportunity to bolster support for these important international coalitions.

The most effective solutions to climate change are market-based. They harness competition and private capital to keep down costs for consumers, while avoiding the need to adopt economically damaging left-wing policy solutions. The Government should use COP26 to enable three of them in particular.

First, the Government should accelerate the growing momentum behind border carbon adjustments (BCAs). BCAs are carbon charges levied on carbon-intensive imports, and carbon charge rebates for exports. This policy – recently advocated on this site by Jerome Mayhew MP – is already being considered by the EU and the US. If implemented carefully, BCAs could unlock the use of higher carbon prices to enable market-based decarbonisation, without harming the competitiveness of UK businesses exposed to international trade.

Some countries regard BCAs as protectionist, but with careful design, this doesn’t need to be the case. With a transparent process for measuring carbon intensity, and by ensuring imports and domestically-produced goods face the same carbon price, the risk of a legal challenge at the WTO can be kept low. The UK should try to shape the international BCA debate, and build a supportive coalition at COP26.

Second, the Government should finalise an agreement on the rules governing carbon markets. Carbon markets enable countries to buy carbon credits from emission-reduction projects overseas and include them in their national carbon accounts. Carbon markets let countries find the most cost-effective pathway to net zero, and provide much-needed private funds for nature-based solutions.

Five years on, this element of the Paris Agreement (known as “article six”) remains highly contentious and is still unresolved. In previous iterations of carbon markets, carbon credits were of dubious quality, were sometimes double-counted by appearing in two different carbon accounts, and diverted investment from crucial domestic emission reduction projects. Using some of the findings from Mark Carney’s new taskforce on voluntary carbon markets, the Government could forge an international consensus behind scientifically rigorous, environmentally-ambitious carbon markets ahead of COP26.

Third, there needs to be much greater focus on the role of the private sector. The Government should urge as many companies as possible to commit to net zero, set a scientifically robust deadline for reaching it, and publish a comprehensive and credible action plan. As happens currently with nation states, we should ask these private sector actors to report against their commitments, and to review their targets every five years with a view to ratcheting ambition. Broadening the scope of the Paris Agreement framework to include the private sector would be a really significant legacy of COP26, and would encourage more businesses to take the lead on climate action.

Finally, the Government must engage its conservative counterparts elsewhere in the world on climate change, and extend the climate discussion to encompass more voices from the right of the political spectrum. Almost a quarter of global emissions comes from countries with centre-right governments. We won’t solve climate change without the support of conservatives, yet too much of the international climate movement remains dominated by the left.

This lack of conservative voices is in large part a result of the historic but shrinking climate scepticism on the right. It must now be rectified. The Government should focus on making the economic case for climate action to its overseas partners, highlighting the UK’s world-leading record on clean growth. The UK enjoys broad cross-party support for climate action – among all sections of the public as well as elected politicians. Thankfully, climate change is not a front in the culture war. We should try to export that model around the world.

This is an exciting year for climate policy in the UK. COP26 will be the culmination of the UK’s recent climate leadership, and a chance to internationalise our clean growth-focused approach. It could also pave the way for a more market-based approach to net zero. It might prove to be one of Boris Johnson’s most significant legacies.