The UK got submerged, an environment secretary
was purged, and UKIP emerged. Climate change was on the fringes of
many important moments this year, even if it remained in the
background of mainstream politics. We revisit this year’s five most
significant climate politics stories.
Linking floods and climate change
At the end of 2013 through the first two months of 2014, Britain
was engulfed in exceptionally wet weather, with flood warnings
issued across many parts of the UK.
Initially, despite some
scientific evidence linking climate change
to increased risk of flooding,
nobody seemed willing to make the
Six weeks after the floods first hit the UK,
David Cameron became on of the first to discuss the link when he
was quoted saying
he “strongly suspects” the floods were
related to climate change.
Cameron’s statement was followed by a report
from the Met Office
spelling out the relationship between
climate change and extreme weather. The Met Office’s chief
scientist Dame Julia Slingo said “all the available evidence
suggests there is a link to climate change”, though the full
reportmade clear just how difficult it is to
unravel the link between weather and
Environment secretary Owen Paterson, the
politician charged with shoring up the UK’s flood
remained conspicuously silent on the
subject. Paterson’s widely criticised management of the crisis was
just the start of an annus horribilis for the climate skeptic
environment secretary, although on the floods he may deserve some
slack – he was recovering from a detached retina at the
The floods may yet have a long term impact on
the government’s environmental policy. The relentless rain pushed
reliance on the Thames Barrier, London’s principal flood defence,
unprecedented levels, prompting London mayor
Boris Johnson to call for a
review of whether it remains up to the
Waves batter the sea walls in Exmouth, Devon in January
Climate skeptic environment secretary shuffled
Come summer’s sunshine, environment secretary Owen Paterson
could add ‘former’ to his job title, as the prime minister gave him
the chop in July’s
cabinet reshuffle. But Paterson soon found himself given a
platform to say all the things he’d (
almost) kept quiet about during his time in office.
Ahead of delivering October’s annual lecture for climate skeptic
campaign group the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a
number of frontpages trumpeted Paterson’s message that the UK
simply can’t keep the UK’s lights on unless MPs scrap the Climate
Change Act. Paterson implored the government to implement his
four point plan: invest in small nuclear, go all out for shale gas,
cut demand, and scrap climate targets. We found a
few flaws in the plan.
Scotland has a fossil-fuelled identity
Breaking up is hard to do. So hard, in fact, that in September a
majority of Scots decided they’d rather not bother and were
willing to give the union a go, after all.
In the run up to the referendum, now former first minister Alex
Salmond said an independent Scotland would remain committed to
getting the equivalent of 100 per cent of its electricity from
renewable sources by 2020, but would also exploit every last drop
of North Sea oil and gas.
40 per cent of the UK’s wind resources are
located north of the border, so separating would probably hit
the remaining UK’s climate goals harder than Scotland’s. But
Scotland’s commitment to
maximising the North Sea’s resources meant lots of
emissions might have been exported abroad. It was also unclear
whether there was the infrastructure, or political will, to allow
export its renewable electricity surplus south, which would
have been crucial to it operating a low carbon energy system.
Anyway, for better or worse, richer or poorer, more or less
emissions, it didn’t happen.
Choosing a green government
There’s going to be a general election next May, but from the
way the UK’s political parties have been acting the last few
months, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a lot sooner.
While the parties’ positions on climate change is unlikely to be
a decisive factor – immigration, austerity, and welfare have that
more or less locked-down – it is emerging as one way to
differentiate between the candidates.
Labour made something of a belated bid to be seen as climate
champions at its party
conference in September. In the confines of a Manchester
convention centre, the shadow cabinet confidently outlined Labour’s
new plan to
get the UK’s energy efficiency schemes working, promised to put
a decarbonisation target into law, and generally skirted the issue
of whether freezing energy prices would be good for emissions.
In stark contrast, a week later, the Conservatives
eschewed any mention of climate change in favour of driving
home the party’s core message: Cameron, Osborne and chums have a
“long term economic plan” and are sticking to it. Perhaps such
silence shows the
influence of UKIP, which has spent some of the last 12 months
arguing against the science of climate change and calling for
an end to the UK’s decarbonisation plans.
The Greens meanwhile have gone from not-much-strength to
slightly-more-strength, largely thanks to the failings of the
Liberal Democrats. The Greens overtook the Lib Dems for the first
one YouGov poll in December, with eight per cent of voters
saying they preferred Natalie Bennett and her team compared to six
per cent willing to vote for Clegg’s lot. There’s still no plans to
include the Greens in the scheduled national TV debates
alongside Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage, however.
Credit: UK Polling
Blackout threats signal new low carbon energy
The autumn was greeted, as it is every year, with headlines
warning of ‘blackout Britain’. But those concerns had an exciting
extra dimension this year.
The UK has lots of coal, gas and nuclear plants that are getting
old. As they age, they’re more prone to breaking unexpectedly, and
that’s exactly what happened this year – five times.
Such outages are normally not too big a deal. But the UK’s
electricity system is in a state of flux. Power stations are
closing down due to old age and
more stringent pollution rules. At the same time, companies are
building lots of renewables, mainly windfarms.
During this shift, the buffer between peak
demand for power and the maximum that can be generated (the
capacity margin) is expected to shrink. That makes unexpected
outages more significant.
But National Grid’s technicians are a
conservative bunch and seem or have
planned for the worst. That’s partly why
it’s overseeing the introduction of number of new schemes to match
supply with peak demand, such as
the capacity market. Such policies continue
to make it unlikely the UK will experience power outages as the
country moves from an old, fossil-fuel based system, to a new, low
carbon grid. Although we will end up paying for them.
Roll on 2015
So, what will the big stories of 2015
It largely hangs on who walks into Downing
Street come June 1st. If electoral rhetoric is to be believed – and
it often isn’t – there could be a big difference between a Labour
government, and the Conservatives ruling without the Liberal
Democrats to check them.
It’s not impossible that the weather will take
centre stage again, particularly if there’s more flooding before
the election. There’s also the small matter of trying to agree a
new global climate deal in Paris in 2015. The UK has so far
a progressive force in the negotiations, if not an
outright leader. Domestic politicking during the next six months
could well determine if that continues to be the