Over the weekend, the UK’s three main political
leaders pledged to tackle climate change after the next election,
whatever the outcome.
The Conservative’s David Cameron, Labour’s Ed Miliband
and the Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg agreed to work towards a
legally-binding global climate deal, to agree new UK
emissions-cutting goals and to phase out unabated coal-fired
Carbon Brief assesses the significance of the unusual
joint pre-election pledge.
There are three parts to the
party leaders’ pledge, published on Saturday after months of
behind-the-scenes negotiations brokered by NGOs, including Green
Alliance, Christian Aid and the Women’s Institute.
The leaders agree:
To seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global
climate deal which limits temperature rises to below two
To work together, across party lines, to agree carbon
budgets, in accordance with the Climate Change Act.
To accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy
efficient low-carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal
for power generation.
The first part of the pledge, on a legally-binding
climate deal consistent with limiting warming to two degrees, is in
line with official
EU policy. So the UK government already supported this aim.
The wording does not specifically refer to the UN
climate talks where leaders are supposed to agree a deal in Paris
this December. This omission may be to allow for the chance that
the Paris talks agree a deal which is
not legally binding, or which falls short on the goal of
limiting warming to no more than two degrees.
The second part, on UK carbon budgets, is also a
restatement of current policy. The Climate Change Act is legally
binding and says that carbon budgets must be agreed according to a
fixed timetable and the advice of the Committee on Climate
The coal phase out pledge is a new policy for Labour
and the Conservatives. However, it reflects
current government expectations that unabated coal use for
energy would have in any case ceased
by around 2030. Unabated coal would be off
the electricity grid by 2027 under central projections
from the Department for Energy and Climate Change.
New unabated coal plants are
already banned in the UK. The Liberal
pledged to ban all unabated coal by 2025.
They had also backed an electricity decarbonisation target for
2030, as had
Labour and the
Committee on Climate Change. This
heavily restricted the operation of
coal-fired power stations.
Domestic political significance
Given the lack of truly new policy in the party
leaders’ statement, you could be forgiven for asking what all the
fuss is about. Indeed, the pledge was not considered significant
enough to feature in BBC Radio Four’s ‘Week in
Westminster‘, the weekly round-up of the week’s
top political stories. The news was also absent from Radio Four’s
Sunday summary of the week’s newspapers and from Monday morning
Yet the UK probably hasn’t witnessed a similar
show of cross-party political unity on climate change since
parliament voted to pass the UK Climate Change Act in 2008, with
the support of all the main party leaders and only five votes
The joint pledge is, therefore, domestically
significant for what it rules out, rather than what it rules in,
because it reduces the chance that the next government could weaken
the UK’s stance on climate change.
It should quell
environmentalists’ fears of a future Conservative government
aiming to match the
UK Independence Party’s climate skeptic position. It also
marginalises Conservative former environment minister
Owen Paterson’s call to scrap the Climate Change Act.
The promise to jointly agree future carbon budgets
under the Act could prevent a repeat of last year’s
review of the fourth carbon budget, initiated by chancellor
George Osborne. The Committee on Climate Change will recommend a
fifth carbon budget later this year.
The UK does not need coal to keep the lights on.
said last year that current power generating
capacity was sufficient to meet all but the highest peaks of
demand, without coal. Last week, research showed
the UK could do without coal power as early
A coal phase out would have a large impact on UK
emissions, because it emits more than twice as much carbon dioxide
as gas, per unit of electricity generated.
Coal-fired power stations emitted around 114
million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2013, around a quarter of the
UK total. So UK emissions would fall by a quarter if nuclear or
renewables were used to supply this electricity. They would fall by
15 per cent if gas were used instead.
It’s hard to say if the joint pledge will
accelerate coal emissions reductions, because the coal phase-out
has no deadline attached. Arguably, the UK would have had to phase
out unabated coal in order to meet its legally binding carbon
budgets. The leaders’ pledge simply confirms what would have had to
happen anyway and prevents any
backsliding by future
The international emissions impact of the coal
phase-out is complicated, too. Power sector emissions are part of
the EU emissions trading scheme (EU ETS). The EU ETS is capped, so
if UK emissions fell on a coal phase-out, other EU countries would
be allowed to emit more.
Planned reforms of the EU ETS could modify this
situation by removing surplus emissions permits at certain times,
but they have
yet to be agreed.
The international emissions impact would also be
complicated by any price effects due to reduced UK coal
consumption. If coal prices fell in response to reduced demand, it
could cause coal consumption to increase elsewhere.
The pledge is internationally significant, too.
The UK was the home of the
coal-driven industrial revolution. It
third largest user of coal in the EU and 14th
largest in the world. Coal still accounts for nearly a third
UK electricity production.
A major report last year said developed
countries should aim to stop
using coal as quickly as possible, as part of
cost-effective efforts to tackle climate change. The UK
Finland in pledging to follow this
Campaigners asking other governments to do the
same are bound to use the UK as an example. Germany, in the
spotlight for its
high coal use, has said it cannot
phase out coal and nuclear at the same
UK climate and energy secretary Ed Davey
“The agreement between
British political leaders to end unabated coal power in the UK is a
positive step. But we now need to take an open, honest and
pragmatic look at how, in Europe and beyond, we can address
unabated coal globally if we are to meet our climate
In broader political terms, the cross-party UK
climate pledge is already being used as an example to others. In
Nobel laureate says his country’s political
leaders should follow the UK lead. In the US, the
Washington Post compares UK leaders’ unity
to Republican and Democrat disagreement over climate.
Former Mexican president Felipe Calderón
“The UK’s cross-party
agreement serves as a positive example to other countries
struggling to act on climate change. A focus on the simultaneous
economic and climate benefits of low-carbon growth makes sense from
any angle, and can help bridge typical partisan
So, while the UK leaders’ pledge may not
make that big a difference to outcomes in the UK, its wider impacts
could prove influential around the world.