Comment: The coalition fiddles while the planet warms

Donna Hume: 'Hardly anyone believes the energy bill is fit for purpose.'
Donna Hume: 'Hardly anyone believes the energy bill is fit for purpose.'

By Donna Hume

On Wednesday, the Twittersphere was aghast at two words uttered by Her Majesty during the Queen's Speech: climate change. You do not often hear it spoken of by our senior politicians these days; never mind our head of state.

The reference was to the upcoming G8 Summit, where the Queen hopes we will "continue to make progress in tackling climate change." Though lacking in urgency, this is a sign of an important shift. Until now David Cameron, who is hosting the summit, had refused to include climate change on the agenda, despite intense lobbying by the French and German governments.

But it is the energy bill in the Queen's Speech that will determine whether Britain makes anything like the progress needed on tackling carbon emissions back home.

Despite confusion from some pundits on Twitter, this is not a new energy bill, but the same one announced this time last year. Since then its progress has been rather tortuous. The bill's purpose is to "reform the energy market to deliver secure, clean, affordable electricity." But the reality has not measured up: this bill might just be a record holder for the number and breadth of organisations to have criticised it.

After detailed research, the Committee on Climate Change – the government’s independent panel of climate advisors made up of economists, academics, businesses representatives and scientists – found that the cheapest way to meet the UK’s climate change targets is to have almost entirely carbon free electricity by 2030.

The committee also found that going for a low-carbon power sector would be good for bills. Households would pay £600 less annually on their energy bills than having an electricity system largely dependent on increasingly expensive gas as advocated by the chancellor.

The committee’s clear advice to government was that the energy bill should include a target to decarbonise power, alongside a clear process to achieve it. But one year on, the bill is still missing both.

Instead of credible, evidence-based policies, we have coalition tit for tat, and an energy bill that is somewhere between a delay and a fudge.

We are still waiting for answers to basic questions like what will be the balance between subsides (yes, they are subsides) for nuclear and renewables? How big will these subsidies be? Will the bill support projects to reduce energy use? And how will the capacity market actually work? Right now it is starting to look like a £2 billion cheque to the gas industry.

In exchange for promised support for renewable power for the next seven years, Ed Davey is set to implement Osborne's plans that could see Britain stuck with unabated gas for the next thirty. Our continued over-reliance on increasingly expensive gas imports would threaten to blow our emissions out of the water – at great cost to consumers and to the economy as we miss out on a clean energy revolution and thousands of UK jobs.

Hardly anyone believes the energy bill is fit for purpose.

The influential energy and climate change select committee found in their scrutiny of the draft bill that the Treasury’s anti-green interference had "made energy policy unworkable."

Ersnt and Young has pointed out that much of the detail on the bill's polices is still missing.

And then there's the raft of businesses, trade associations, manufactures and energy companies who, alongside green organisations, have been clamouring for a target to be set to have almost carbon free power by 2030. Siemens, Alstom, and DONG Energy have said that this target is essential to give the certainty they need to invest in new UK jobs and factories in renewable energy. Ed Miliband noted the seriousness of the target's absence by tabling a motion rejecting the bill as not fit for purpose without it.

It's no wonder that support continues to gather for the set of amendments tabled by Conservative chair of the energy and climate change select committee and MP for South Suffolk, Tim Yeo, and his colleague Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, to introduce a decarbonisation target and a plan to achieve it.

The Labour party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, Respect, Alliance and the Green party have already pledged their support alongside 18 coalition backbenchers in a growing rebellion. Lib Dem president Tim Farron has come out in support of the amendments, which happen to be in line with Liberal Democrat party policy passed last Autumn.

This will all come to a head in the next few weeks when MPs vote on key amendments and on the bill as a whole. We want to see MPs backing the decarbonisation amendment and a series of measures to support our transition to a low-carbon future.

MPs have an opportunity here to stand firm against Treasury lobbying, resist Osborne's costly and polluting dash for gas, and fight for the clean energy we need. It's not just vital for tackling climate change; it will boost the economy and create jobs, as well as helping to tackle rising fuel bills.

With our huge renewable energy resource from the wind, sun and sea, the UK could become a powerhouse of clean energy. But failing to set the target now risks the UK being left behind other countries as they too move towards a low-carbon future.

Without these changes, Her Majesty’s bill will not be fit for purpose.

Donna Hume is an energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth. For more information on Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy campaign for a decarbonisation target to tackle climate change and create jobs, visit www.cleanbritishenergy.co.uk.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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