The lights are on Amber, will they go green?

Simon Bullock

14 May 2015

Amber Rudd is the Government’s new climate and energy boss. She may well have the toughest job in politics - but the prize for success is huge. So what should her priorities be for her first year in charge?

David Cameron could have given the job to a climate-denier, or someone with deep links to the fossil fuel industry. But in Amber Rudd he’s given it instead to someone who argues that climate change will have “devastating impacts, nationally and internationally” unless action is taken.

So far so good. But it’s one of the toughest jobs in politics. Not only does she need to drive the UK much more rapidly down the low-carbon route, she needs to keep energy bills affordable for people and business, and keep the energy system secure. And the politics is very hard. In some ways, Ed Davey might be relieved to be gone.

But the climate agenda is also one of genuine optimism. The renewables industry is one of the few fast growing sectors in the UK economy. There is almost total agreement across business and the public that greater action on climate is needed. And there are huge opportunities for the UK economy to benefit from the transition to low-carbon, in every sector.

At the end of the next five years Amber Rudd could well be able to look back with pride on having achieved a very rare thing – having led and driven popular change that has helped people, business and the environment, and helped protect us all from enormous risks.

But there’s no time to lose. Here’s Friends of the Earth's view of the top-ten first-year priorities for DECC and Amber Rudd:

1     Show leadership going into the Paris climate talks

David Cameron has pledged to deliver a fair, strong global climate deal, but the current UK offer of 40% cuts by 2030 is woeful, meaning developing countries need to do more than we do. First, the UK should up its offer to at least that recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. Second, Amber Rudd should heed the CCC’s warning that our current plans are off-course, and announce ahead of Paris she will revamp the UK’s out-of-date “Carbon Plan”.

2     Energy efficiency – warm homes for everyone

The Government says it will “meet our climate change commitments…as cheaply as possible”. That means top priority to energy efficiency – the most cost-effective means to cut carbon. But the Conservative’s manifesto was the weakest of all the big parties bar UKIP on energy saving, particularly on cutting people’s energy bills. Radical overhaul of energy efficiency policy should be top of Amber Rudd’s inbox.

3     Help Solar keep growing

The future is solar. Its costs have plummeted – it’s already bettered new nuclear on cost 10 years before a single Watt of new nuclear electricity is generated and costs are predicted to keep on falling, becoming cheaper than gas in just a few years. In this crucial period, solar needs clear consistent support, while the subsidy it needs gradually falls to zero. DECC need to make sure the Contract for Difference (CfD) and the feed-in-tariff (FiT) continue to support the growth of solar and other renewables.

4     Wind – both on and offshore

Of course, we need a balanced mix of clean energy technologies. The Government’s continued commitment to offshore-wind is welcome, and is helping drive down costs. But the Manifesto is hostile to onshore wind, despite it being one of the cheapest forms of clean energy. There is a strong place for more appropriately-sited onshore-wind in the UK’s electricity mix.

5     Energy owned by people

Hostility to onshore wind in some places is an example that too often energy projects, big or small, clean or dirty, are imposed on local people. We should follow the example of Germany, and give people the freedom to have more energy owned by local people, communities and businesses. Amber Rudd’s promised support to help schools go solar is welcome. We also need to remove the barriers so that community energy can flourish in the UK - so that everyone can have a stake in the energy they use.

6     No cash to high-carbon biomass

The Government rightly wants value-for-money. But scarce public funds could be going to biomass projects which make climate change worse. Some could be three times worse than coal, and don’t have to prove otherwise. This is a crazy loophole. The Government needs to make standards much tighter – making Drax and other operators prove what their life-cycle emissions are, and only receive public funds if they are genuinely low-carbon.

7     Moratorium on Fracking

The vast majority of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves need to stay in the ground. We have little chance of persuading countries like China to stop exploring for new fossil fuels if we keep on drilling for new gas, oil and coal ourselves. The Government should acknowledge that the exploitation of unconventional gas and oil would not be compatible with our national and international obligations on climate change. In the short-term, it should put in place a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas until its full climate and health impacts have been assessed. Also no fracking should occur in groundwater Source Protection Zones, or under National Parks and other protected areas.

8     No new dash for gas

The Conservative Manifesto pledges a major expansion in new gas plants, which is set to break carbon targets, and mean more imports of gas, irrespective of whether fracking happens. A dash-for-gas is bad for the UK’s energy security and our climate. These plans should be dropped, and replaced with a focus on cutting gas use and a 2030 power decarbonisation target.

9     Phase-out coal

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. We strongly support the Prime Minister’s pledge to phase-out coal power. It needs to happen by 2023 at the latest. But to get a phase-out means tougher policy from DECC. This should be linked with a ban on open-cast coal mining – a blight on local communities.

10    Build strong bridges with DfT, DEFRA and Treasury

DECC needs to work strongly with all departments on climate change – but three are critical:

The Department for Transport needs to seize the huge economic opportunities from a switch to electric vehicles, and in the first year the decision on airport expansion is crucial. On both air and road transport, the Department needs to reverse its strategy to support all predicted growth in demand.

The Treasury can be a huge enabler or blocker of all climate policy. It could allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow as a first signal of a changed approach.

Finally, DEFRA has the lead role in reducing the air pollution that is killing thousands of people every year, and costing the NHS billions, and in adequately protecting people from the climate change we can no longer avoid.

So that’s our ten – what would be yours? Let us know below…

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