If one country can hold its head up high at next week’s Climate Change Conference, it should be Britain. As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the U.K. — of course — started the greenhouse gas pollution that now threatens the planet.
But it has been trying to make amends.
It passed the world’s first Carbon Act imposing legally binding cuts in emissions. It’s been weaning itself off coal and investing heavily in solar and wind power. But is the U.K. really as green as it seems?
“We’ve much to be proud of,” said Jonathan Selwyn, boss of Lark Energy, one of Britain’s largest solar installation firms. “As an industry we’ve installed 9 gigawatts of solar power in the last four and a half years, which is roughly a couple of nuclear power station’s worth.”
It’s not just solar power that’s taken off in Britain. Wind power has grown even faster and is now generating around 10 percent of the U.K.’s electricity. All this has — apparently —turned Britain into a world champion carbon cutter.
Last year, according to calculations by the PWC consulting firm, the U.K. cut its carbon emissions, relative to the size of its economy, by more than any other developed country.
“It was an exceptional performance,” said PWC’s Jonathan Grant. “And not just last year, the U.K.’s emissions cutting has been exceptional over the past fifteen years.”
Environmentalists the length and breadth of Britain must be rejoicing. But are they?
Morgan Curtis (R) and Garrett Blad cycle to the Climate Conference.
“No they’re not!” observed Morgan Curtis, a bicycling climate campaigner. In June she and her partner embarked on a five-month bike ride through nine nations on their way to the Climate Conference in Paris. Along the way they’ve been meeting with people who share their concern about climate.
“In the U.K. we’ve definitely heard some dissatisfaction with current energy policy,” she said. “There’s a big mismatch between international rhetoric and reputation and what’s happening here on the ground in the U.K.”
British environmentalists say the U.K. is not as squeaky clean as it seems. One of the reasons its emissions have fallen — they say — is because it’s off-shored a lot of its manufacturing. So the carbon emitted in producing the goods Britain imports winds up on someone else’s tally. And while the renewables have been a success story — they claim — that new industry is now in peril because the government has just announced plans to phase out subsidies. Financial help for solar will fall by 87 percent next year. Dozens of small solar firms are closing. Jonathan Selwyn’s Lark Energy isn’t one of them, but he’s aghast at the government’s action.
“We’re on the cusp of delivering really meaningful volumes of green energy in this country. We’ve achieved a huge amount but we would achieve so much more if the government wasn’t pulling out too soon.” Selwyn said.
The U.K. energy minister said that wind and solar projects “must stand on their own two feet” and that “we are trying to promote a viable, affordable and secure supply of energy.” But Morgan Curtis, bicycling to the Climate Conference in Paris, took a more jaundiced view of U.K. policy. “This government just doesn’t take climate change seriously,” she said.
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