Politics

The Observer view on Britain’s climate crisis targets | Observer editorial


Britain’s electricity generation went through an unfortunate phase last year. According to the UK-based website Carbon Brief, it got dirtier for the first time in years as renewable sources failed to provide sufficient power to help the nation’s economy recover from lockdown restrictions. More coal and gas had to be burned to generate electricity.

This jump occurred – in part – because 2021 was notable for its low winds. Wind farm output dropped by almost 15% from 2020, despite the fact that more turbines had been installed across the nation. At the same time, nuclear power generation fell by almost 10% because of problems with ageing reactors.

It is a sobering reminder that the road to limit climate change is going to be a long one, though, in this case, the news is particularly unfortunate, given that Britain is still in charge of the negotiations that followed the Cop26 summit in Glasgow last year.

Indeed, the nation will remain in this position of leadership until Egypt takes charge at the end of 2022, when its Cop27 summit opens in Sharm el-Sheikh. Until then, the world will be looking to Britain to set a lead and to play a major role in ensuring that the promises made in Glasgow are fulfilled.

What other nations will have witnessed so far will not have made a good impression, however. The fact that the UK last year failed to clean up its power generation, one of the easiest ways to start on the business of cutting carbon emission, is bad enough. Sadly, there have been many other setbacks in the UK’s attempts to fight climate change.

Another example was provided by the public accounts committee, which last month savaged the government over the failure of its green homes grant scheme in England. The programme underperformed so badly it risks damaging future efforts to deliver net zero, the committee warned. Hailed by Boris Johnson as a key plank in his green industrial revolution, the scheme was intended to help the public make their homes more energy efficient and less reliant on fossil fuel heating. This was to be done by providing grants for installing heat pumps and other equipment.

A total of 600,000 homes were targeted but in the end just 47,500 were upgraded, while only a small fraction of the expected jobs were created in the process. As Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, put it: “This scheme was a slam dunk fail.”

Power generation and carbon-friendly housing are clearly issues that need to be tackled urgently. But they are not the only problems that lie ahead. As another government body, the Climate Change Committee, made clear last month, the UK desperately needs a strategy to reduce carbon emissions from agriculture and to review how tax policy can help deliver net zero. This last issue is particularly important because the Treasury is now under pressure to reduce VAT on gas in response to the energy crisis – at a time when it should be making it more expensive in order to discourage its use.

However, the committee’s key message was even more direct: the UK must now focus on implementation rather than targets. In other words, we need action, not words, when it comes to tackling climate change in 2022 and that action should come not just from Alok Sharma, currently president of Cop26, but from all senior ministers, including Boris Johnson.

Certainly, if they do not act firmly over the coming year, and provide international leadership, then the goal to limit global warming to 1.5C will be dead.



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