The need to decarbonise transport is driven by the Climate Change Act target of an 80% cut to greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 against 1990 levels. Critics such as Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Forum, say the Act is damaging the economy and ministers should slow the pace of action. Andrew Forster went to meet him.
Climate change hasn’t been quite the driving force in transport policy that many expected it to be when the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008. But with transport close to ousting the power sector as the biggest source of UK carbon dioxide emissions, the legislation’s influence on the transport sector seems likely to grow. Assuming, that is, that the Government follows the advice of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which recommends the five-year carbon budgets to put the UK on the right trajectory to 2050. The Liberal Democrats’ presence in the coalition Government ensured that the CCC’s advice on the fourth carbon budget (2023-2027) was listened to. But how will the Conservative Government respond this summer to the CCC’s recommendations on the fifth carbon budget, covering 2028-2032, and whose central scenario envisages a 50 million tonne (42%) reduction in transport sector CO2 emissions in 2030 compared with levels today?
Prominent critics of the Climate Change Act seem to come mainly from the right of the political spectrum. They point to the rising energy costs associated with the policies, or the damage that wind farms do to the landscape. Many also believe that the dangers of man-made CO2 emissions have been oversold. Last summer Fraser Nelson, editor of the The Spectator magazine, wrote that energy and climate secretary Amber Rudd was preparing a “proper Tory plan” for how to take the climate agenda forward. “The Climate Change Act was written by Ed Miliband and we’ve been playing by his rules ever since,” said Nelson. “Yet it gives the Government the power to set a new target, if there have been ‘significant developments’ in scientific knowledge or European policy.”
A rolling back of climate policies would not come a moment too soon for Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Global Warming Policy Forum. The Foundation was set up by former Conservative chancellor Lord Lawson in 2009, its aim being to combat what he saw as misinformation and alarm within the debate. Discussions of climate change can often be ill tempered affairs, with many people insisting that on the science there can be no debate – everything is settled. The Global Warming Policy Foundation has been the subject of complaints to the Charity Commission from green activists, which is why the non-charitable Global Warming Policy Forum has been set up, and it’s on the Forum’s behalf that Peiser is speaking today.
Peiser grew up in Germany and helped found the country’s Green Party in the 1970s. He pursued an academic career in social anthropology and one of his research interests was how societies through the centuries have responded to real and imaginary natural disasters. Climate change came to his attention in the 1990s. “As the tone of the discussion became shriller and the claims became louder and the predicted disasters became bigger I became more interested in assessing these claims,” he said when I interviewed him in 2006 (LTT 30 Nov 06).
To understand UK climate policy, it helps to have a basic grasp of the international picture. When I spoke to Peiser in 2008 he predicted, correctly, that the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen the following December would turn out to be a fiasco as nations failed to agree on new mandatory emission reduction targets. “No one will say this has collapsed. They’ll say, ‘OK, well, we’ll meet again in a year – there will always be another conference.’”
And so it proved, with talks culminating in the Paris conference just before Christmas. The outcome of Paris has been hailed as a big step forward in putting the planet on a low carbon trajectory, with 195 nations pledging to keep the global temperature increase to well below 2C above pre-industrial times. The agreement notes that current pledges by countries fall short of what is needed to meet the ambition: 55 Gt/year of greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 compared to a requirement of about 40 Gt/year.
Peiser thinks the Paris agreement has been over-hyped. “Paris has essentially failed just as much as Copenhagen, except the PR was better.”
But David Cameron said it was a “historic deal” and legally binding. “That’s right – legally binding to meet again. The only legally binding thing is the process – it’s legally binding to meet again and to review every five years and to reassess the pledges. But there is nothing about the actual CO2 targets.”
The EU has led the global drive to cut emissions. Under the Kyoto protocol, it has adopted a legally binding target to cut emissions by 20% by 2020 against 1990 levels, with the burden split between member states. Ahead of Paris, the EU and members states pledged to go further, with a 40% reduction by 2030. But read the small print, says Peiser. “There was a condition to the pledge the Europeans submitted to Paris, which is, ‘We will cut CO2 by 40% by 2030; however, we will only do so and will only make it legally binding if everyone else takes on legally binding commitments. This hasn’t happened.”
He thinks EU leaders will probably abandon their unilateral approach to emission reductions. “The Europeans are beginning to realise that their unilateral policies, where they are the only ones taking on binding commitments, has undermined their economies. If your competitors don’t follow suit you make your own industries less competitive – energy prices go up, those of your competitors’ don’t – and surprise, surprise, your heavy industry moves to places where it is cheaper to produce.
“I guess the EU will delay any decision on future emissions targets but, when they do decide, what in all likelihood they will do is come to another fudge. As you know, politicians like fudge.
“They’ve done that with renewable energy targets – they agreed the EU would have a renewable target of 27% by 2030. But it was so controversial they said, ‘Ok, we will make this legally binding but only at the EU level.’ Now what does that mean? It means no one is actually forced to do anything because there is no legal framework.” He thinks the same could happen with the EU’s 40% climate target.
Where would that leave the UK with its Climate Change Act? The Committee on Climate Change’s recommended fifth carbon budget, covering 2028-2032, requires the UK to cut domestic emissions more aggressively than the EU’s 40% pledge. “George Osborne and Amber Rudd have said, ‘We will not go faster than the rest of Europe, which means that if Europe slows down its decarbonisation policies, there will be pressure in Britain to amend our targets. Osborne is rightly concerned that by going it alone it will be damaging to the economy.
“The Government has the right to amend the targets in light of international developments. So if it comes to the conclusion that the other European countries are not pulling their weight, ministers could argue that that’s a case for reassessment and possibly amendment to a more moderate and more realistic level.”
Peiser points out that the Chancellor opposed the fourth carbon budget, legislated in 2011. “George Osborne was always against the fourth carbon budget. He tried to prevent it but couldn’t get his way because of the coalition government.”
Flawed, in every respect
UK energy and climate policies are based on three faulty assumptions, says Peiser. “The first was global warming is an imminent threat and we have to do something about it imminently, no matter what the costs. That didn’t turn out to be right because it’s not as dramatic or as imminent as was thought. Twenty years ago the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] said we are expecting a warming of 0.3C a decade. So we should now already have 0.6C warming – that hasn’t happened.
“The second was we’re running out of fossil fuels such as oil and gas, so going into renewables makes a lot of sense because they will become competitive and we will then send this technology to the rest of the world and we will become a technology leader.
“Part of the reason why it’s so difficult to decarbonise is because energy is so cheap and so abundant.” He points to the glut of oil, and the shale gas revolution in the US. “Because there is so much cheap conventional energy around, the bridge to the renewables has become longer rather than shorter.
“The third assumption was, once we adopt the Climate Change Act the rest of the world will do so and we will be the leader. We just saw the Paris summit disagreed with that because they didn’t follow Britain’s example, they did the opposite, they refused to take this lead, that’s the point. There are currently 2,500 new coal-fired power plants being planned or built worldwide so whatever we do is completely irrelevant.
“Of course they [the Government] will bang on as if nothing has changed but all of these three assumptions haven’t materialised, so it’s like a broken record.”
Peiser thinks UK policy has shifted a little in his favour over the last decade but he isn’t getting carried away. “I think there is a slightly more realistic assessment of what is do-able and what isn’t. A little; I’m not saying a complete change.”
The main change has been in the public mood. “When we spoke in 2006, 2008, there was hardly a newspaper that would dare to publish anything asking awkward questions. There was not only a complete party consensus – remember, there were only five MPs who voted against the Climate Change Act – there was almost a complete media consensus too. That has changed significantly and that has opened the public debate. It hasn’t trickled down yet to the kind of chattering classes and MPs but there is now much more questioning: ‘Hold on, does that add up? Does that make sense? How much does it actually cost?’All these questions are now in the public domain.”
A left/right split has opened up. “All centre-right papers tend to be sceptical – The Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph, The Times – they all have continuously sceptical, critical articles, columns, op-eds. Mainly because of the impact of the policies – they realise something isn’t working. Subsidising so much renewables is causing all sorts of unintended consequences.”
The political picture is largely unchanged, however. “The Conservative Party is still where it was seven-eight years ago. They haven’t changed. I mean you could argue that a few ministers within the Government who are dealing with these issues are beginning to realise there are problems and are making some noises to say ‘hold on’. Amber Rudd has made it perfectly clear now that the main energy priority in the UK is no longer climate change. The main priority is affordability and security of energy and climate comes third. It used to be climate first.
“It’s not that they can suddenly do the maths, it’s just they realise they get a lot of flak and criticism and people are saying why are we wasting billions and billions of pounds on energy systems that don’t work 24/7?”
For many people climate change is more than just a policy issue, he says. “It’s so deeply ingrained, it’s almost a belief system and the pressure to conform is enormous, perhaps even more than seven or eight years ago. In polite society you do not mention that you’re not entirely sure about this agenda. This is like being a neo-Nazi or a racist, it’s as bad as that in certain circles.
“On the other hand, when you look at the surveys where people are actually asked about climate change, the majority of Britons are no longer bothered, there’s a fatigue, ‘Oh, we’ve heard it all before.’”
He believes vested interests act as a big barrier to rolling back policy. “All the landowners [on whose land wind-farms/solar farms have been built], all the families who have solar panels on their roofs, for them it’s an investment, they don’t want to lose that at all. Then you have the green NGOs and the green civil servants – in Paris there were 15,000 green bureaucrats. So every government has created these institutions, almost in every department, almost everywhere someone is working on climate energy, renewables. You have an institutionalised force that lives off this very agenda. You have this ‘green blob’ that is very active and who wants to pursue this forever.
“That is why I think any rollback will be piecemeal and gradual – more and more programmes will be cut, once you cut the programmes the jobs will go, and the blob shrinks. But it is very, very influential, very powerful. The green blob can organise campaigns – that they can do very effectively. They are trying these kinds of intimidation tactics that if you question any of this then you are portrayed as a very bad person.”
What does he want to happen? “I think fracking and shale [oil and gas] would be a big boost to the UK economy and energy security. And I would like to see a return to rational discussion and debating where people with different views on these things are able to discuss them.” He takes a close interest in climate science. “I still believe that the basic paradigm is correct – that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that as we pump more and more of it into the atmosphere it will have a warming effect. That I fully accept. The big question always has been, ‘So how much of an effect, what are the feedbacks, what are the kind of knock-on effects of that? Will it accelerate, or will it be balanced by other feedbacks?
“Most climate scientists believe it will be a strong warming effect but this is entirely based on models and not on the basic physics and it is based on the assumption – the assertion – that we fully understand the climate. If you miss out some factors or feedbacks that we don’t know yet, the whole model is likely to be wrong. So I have no trust in the models – absolutely not, because I think we do not have the full picture of a highly complex system.
“The scientific debate has changed because there hasn’t been very much warming since we met last. What is called the warming ‘pause’, or standstill, or hiatus, has been a big issue in the science. Why isn’t the temperature rising as predicted? No one can explain why temperatures aren’t rising in accordance with the computer models. Some [scientists] have tried to explain it – there are about 35 different theories as to why – and some have tried to deny it actually exists.”
Amber Rudd has ruled out a review of the science and Peiser concurs. “I think it’s far too early because it’s too fuzzy. All the national academies are still adamant that everything is right, they’ve got everything right and nothing has changed. I think we need more time before we can say with some confidence that something is seriously wrong.”
The Committee on Climate Change says the pause doesn’t change things: “Scientists are confident the temperature will rise more quickly again, as greenhouse gas emissions continue and current cooling influences subside. The pause does not substantially affect long-term projections.”
Says Peiser: “I think everyone will be observing what will happen to the temperature over the next five years or so.” If temperatures don’t shoot up, science faces a crisis. “Science faces a big test. If it turns out to be wrong – and I’m not saying it is but there’s a slight chance – then people will ask, ‘How is it possible that science failed us to such an extent, it shut down the debate, and forced governments into these billions and trillions of damaging policies? I think they [scientists] have failed already, even if they’re right. I think it was a mistake to suppress critical views because science works best when it is tested all the time.”
The chart shows a growing disparity between temperature forecasts of climate models (red line) and observed temperatures (green and blue lines) in the troposphere. The red line is the five-year running mean of the 102 computer models found in the 2013 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that can generate temperatures in this layer of the atmosphere. The chart was presented to the US House of Representatives just before Christmas by professor John Christy of the University of Alabama
Peiser can see two options for how policy will develop. “Either the climate campaigners are right and we see rapid warming in the next 20 years – I mean rapid – 0.3, 0.4 degrees per decade, which is what the models basically predict. Then this agenda will go on and on and on.
“The alternative is the warming doesn’t happen, or it happens much slower. Then this will gradually go the way previous scares have gone. You will get a new generation of young people who have grown up without constant bombardment in school and the media – ‘The end is nigh’ and ‘We have to save the planet’.”