Back in 2011, the UK committed to world-leading carbon reduction goals but nothing is ever certain in politics. The right wing of the Conservative Party, which leads a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, started flexing its climate denialist muscle, leading to Chancellor George Osborn's declaration that Britain would not lead on CO2 reductions after all.
Since then, the signs of progress in the UK have been decidedly mixed, with the "Environmental Taliban" marching on government recently to make the claim that green growth really is working.It's with this context that we now hear from The Guardian that the coalition government has finally struck a deal over the future of renewable energy subsidies and utility bills. The deal allows utilities to increase the amount of money that is set aside for supporting clean energy, from about £20 to £80 from the average energy bill of of £1,249. (Officials argue that by the time energy saving measures kick in, the average bill will be reduced as a result.) The renewables sector at least seems to be decidedly pleased:
Maria McCaffery, chief executive of Renewable UK, said: "This provides the industry with exactly the kind of assurance we've been calling for. It blows the last few months of political infighting completely out of the water. The UK government is sending a clear message that 30% of our electricity will be from renewable sources by 2020. The lion's share will come from wind energy, where we now know for certain that we will have at least 31 gigawatts installed onshore and offshore by the end of the decade."
Just because the renewables sector is happy, however, does not mean all environmentalists are. The deal also creates uncertainty around some of the government's long term targets, uncertainty that some say is a deliberate precursor to a policy favoring further natural gas exploration:
In another signal that risks undermining certainty over long-term policy for reducing emissions, the bill will announce a review of the fourth carbon budget for 2023-27, provisionally agreed last year. If it is changed it can only be increased to allow the UK to generate more CO2. Such moves might be a backdrop to an expected announcement of a new gas strategy in the next few weeks, probably alongside the chancellor's autumn statement on 5 December.
Green groups like Friends of the Earth described the concessions on CO2 cuts as a surrender to George Osborne's "wreckless dash for gas".
There's much to be welcomed in this latest deal, but let's not get carried away. We can expect to see a lot more wind turbines being built in the UK in the coming decades, but most likely a lot more natural gas power stations too. (And a lot more power station occupations too.)
With the UK experiencing deadly floods only this week, and the continued projections for climate change impacts in Europe looking dire, the need to get serious about a fully decarbonized energy supply will not go away. A step in the right direction is good. We still need to start running.