Surveys show that the public are deeply concerned by climate change and in the 2017 election a clear majority voted for parties calling for a reversal of the lukewarm response that has characterised government under the Conservatives. The downgrading of Britain’s response to the challenge of global warming since 2015 has been made possible by an electoral system which fails to represent the wishes of the majority of the population and opens the door to undue influence from private interests including the fossil fuel industry.
It is overwhelmingly in Britain’s interest to take a lead in addressing the threat of global warming, which along with population growth, is probably the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century. This raises the challenge of developing and introducing new, clean technologies on a global scale. Many of these technologies have the potential to create sustainable jobs for the future. Reducing the release of fossil fuel gases from power generation, heating and transport will also have substantial health benefits, with authoritative estimates indicating that such emissions are responsible around the world for over five million premature deaths a year.
After the 2015 election, the Government took a number of steps backwards on the issue of climate change. These called in question Britain’s commitment to tackling global warming and its prospects for developing an internationally competitive renewable energy sector. It foreshortened the time scale for phasing out the Climate Change Levy, which supports new renewable energy investment; it impeded the development of land-based wind generation, currently the most cost effective technology; it held down petrol and diesel duty; and subsidised the installation of diesel generators, a highly polluting means of insuring against peak demand shortages. These measures have slowed the development of wind and solar power generation. Unfortunately, inspired by neo-conservative small government ideology, the international community is now committed to a cumbersome and bureaucratic market-based system of carbon emissions trading as the primary stimulus to reducing the production of CO2 by large industrial emitters.
The variable and intermittent nature of solar and wind generation limit the extent to which existing renewable technologies can replace conventional forms of generation. The results of experiments in the United States indicate that carbon capture is unlikely to play a significant part in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Resolving the problem through long distance distribution, storage, tidal power and, possibly, fusion will be possible in time. Meanwhile, society faces a trade off between maintaining nuclear capacity, investment massively in energy storage and transmission, or accepting higher fossil fuel emissions for longer. Resolving this dilemma demands a robustly evidence-based approach to future policy coupled with open and informed public debate.
Currently countries such as Canada, Switzerland and France, which combine a significant nuclear power sector with hydro-electric generation, have the lowest carbon emissions among the advanced economy countries. Germany, which is due to close the last of its nuclear power stations by 2022, has seen emissions rise as it has reverted to burning lignite to make up for declining nuclear generation. In Japan too, the closure of nuclear power plants because of concerns over possible health effects of the Fukushima disaster has also led to increased coal-fired generation.
The Party considers that the aim should be to move to a wholly renewable-based energy system as soon at this becomes technically and financially possible in the early part of the second half of the century by:
- tightening the target for cutting net carbon emissions by 2050 from the present 80% reduction commitment;
- restoring the Climate Change Levy to a level which will sustain continuing strong growth in renewable capacity, or be replaced by an equivalent taxation-based support system, which might better reflect the interests of people on low incomes;
- replacing the carbon trading system by a carbon tax, which experience in Sweden and California shows is an effective means of promoting energy efficiency and reducing carbon dioxide emissions;
- better energy management to reduce the need for additional generation at times of peak consumption. Initiatives are also needed to help people out of fuel poverty by supporting investment in energy saving;
- replacing the present scatter-gun tax-free winter fuel payments by focusing them on people on low incomes who are at risk of not being able to afford to keep themselves warm;
- banning on-shore fracking, in view of the inadequately understood risk of leakage of methane, which is more dangerous in terms of climate change than carbon dioxide;
- expanding energy storage capacity as quickly as possible, while continuing to replace ageing nuclear reactors with new and safer reactors based on tried and tested technology designs if the evidence indicates that this is the best available alternative to rising fossil fuel emissions over the coming decades;
- stepping up research into realistic long term alternatives to gas and nuclear, with increased funding for pilot experiments in energy saving, tidal power and fuel cell technology (which could make possible large reductions in transport related emissions);
- encourage wider public understanding of the risks which may be involved, on the one hand, in constructing new nuclear power plants and, on the other, of delaying measures to reduce emissions of CO2 and other gases, in terms both of climate change and of mortality from fossil fuel pollutants.