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Matthew Sinclair: Dismal Durban

By Matthew Sinclair

Over the weekend, the major UNFCCC COP17 in Durban concluded.  Climate economist Richard Tol has set out the poor progress at the conference compared to Bali all the way back in 2007.  He writes that the Durban Platform "pledges an agreement by 2015. It replaces the Bali Roadmap, which pledged an agreement by 2009. Once more, the countries of the world agreed to agree at a later stage."  And that the extension of the Kyoto targets to 2015 "creates the diplomatic illusion of having saved the Kyoto Protocol, but all countries that are bound by Kyoto had already adopted unilateral targets that are more stringent. Well, the EU has, and Canada, Japan, and Russia have already indicated that they will not take seriously this part of the Durban agreement."

So despite all the parties taking diplomatic steps forward, and a notional pledge whatever is agreed in 2015 will have "legal force", we are back in the same limbo that we have been in ever since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.  The European Union presses ahead rationing the use of fossil fuel energy while the other major economic areas that are responsible for the heavy majority of emissions don't.  Every year that passes the world economy is further imbalanced as investment in industrial capacity goes to those places without the targets.  That builds up industries and jobs there dependent on the difference in energy costs and thereby increases the political cost to following our lead and eroding that difference.

How do British politicians best respond to that situation?

I set out a plan in my book Let them eat carbon.  The critical first step is to stop forming our unilateral climate policy as if we were running a world government.  Given that we can't persuade other countries to emulate our plan to deploy extremely expensive alternatives to fossil fuels on a massive scale, even if we are willing to make that mistake, we need to focus on directly supporting the research and development that can make them cheaper.

With the Government looking at prizes to support new technologies, they are already putting the right mechanisms in place.  That is far more productive and doesn't have the same huge cost as trying to meet short term emissions and renewable energy targets that are of little consequence given that they only address the paltry emissions produced in Britain, well under two per cent of the global total.  The current plan that will see us investing around £200 billion in moving to expensive sources of energy like offshore wind doesn't achieve much despite the huge price tag.  It needs to be abandoned.

Moving away from the targets and subsidies regime will be painful.  There have been angry protests from environmentalists and special interests in business even at cuts to the most absurdly generous tariffs for solar panels. But given how it is already fraying around the edges following the announcement of the Osborne Doctrine, do politicians really think they can maintain the political cartel sustaining current unilateral policy till at least 2015, particularly if there continues to be severe pressure on living standards?

Ever since Copenhagen there has been an opportunity for British politicians to think again, to adopt a plan that is more realistic in light of the limits of any global political process.  And reform climate policy to make it more affordable for families with so many pressures on their finances. They need to seize that opportunity now.


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