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What is the significance of the Paris Agreement?

The UN Accord reached in Paris in December marked a historic landmark in progress on climate change. It showed that the world is still capable of reaching common agreements on complex problems when our shared interests are at risk.

For the first time ever, almost every country in the world agreed to take part in a coordinated international plan to limit global temperature rises to no more than 2[degrees]C, and to try and cap warming at i.5[degrees]C. Importantly, both America and China the two largest emitters--agreed for the first time to join with hundreds of other countries, including Britain, to deliver radical cuts in greenhouse gas pollution and build a prosperous carbon neutral global economy.

As well as protecting the natural wonders of the world--rainforests, coral reefs and the Arctic--addressing climate change is ultimately about protecting people's lives and their livelihoods. For vulnerable low-lying countries like the Marshall Islands, the Maldives and Micronesia, the difference between a 1.5[degrees]C increase in warming and a bigger temperature rise is a question of survival or extinction. But for Britain too, this difference will have profound implications for our health, prosperity and national security.

In October the government's chief advisors on climate change warned that if global temperatures rise by as much as 4 degrees, an extra one million homes in the UK would be at a significant risk of flooding. (1) They said annual economic damages from floods across Britain could increase by 150 per cent. (2)

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, is also among those to have warned of the severity of climate risks to our economic security. He told financiers in the City of London at the end of last year that 'once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late'. UK investors, including anyone with a pension, are exposed. (3)

While the Paris Agreement has finally established a plan for reaching climate safety, a key part of the Accord is the undertaking that all countries will return to the table every five years to increase their ambition on cutting pollution until the job is done. This will be critical, because the gap between existing national plans and what scientists tell us will be required is still substantial.

The requirement to submit national plans is made legally binding through the agreement, but commitments within each of these plans are rooted in national laws and schemes. This novel approach ensures that each country retains ownership and control over what it is doing; something that was key to securing support from the United States. Campaigners, civil society and business leaders will have a key role ensuring that each country is delivering against the promises it has made.

The task of bringing down pollution should become easier as the cost of clean technologies continues to fall. Nevertheless, the enormity of the challenge cannot be underestimated. The transition from an energy system dominated by fossil fuels to one almost wholly powered by clean energy is comparable in size and scale to the industrial revolution.

This challenge creates a pressing need for an industrial strategy to ensure all communities can benefit from the transition into the jobs of the future, including those that currently rely on fossil fuels for their livelihoods. As young people from coalfield communities like Wigan and Barnsley once built the country's prosperity through coal, they should be given the chance to do it again through solar, wind and the other technologies of the future.

To breathe life into the Paris Accord, and turn the words on that paper into a practical reality, the UK will need an active government with a high level of political commitment at all levels, both to pursue the transition but also to build a public consensus around it. This will require a complete reversal of the approach taken by this government since the 2015 general election.

In the six months preceding the Paris talks, the chancellor announced severe cuts to solar and wind schemes. The UK fell out of the top ten countries for investment in renewable energy for the first time. (4) The government have since admitted that the new limits they put on British solar businesses could see more than 18,000 job losses in what should be one of our major growth industries. (5)

Ministers also cancelled a long-planned investment of 1 billion [pounds sterling] in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, and in doing so brought to an end plans for new jobs in an emerging industry that holds much promise for Britain. Many of the UK's universities and businesses hold some of the best expertise in the world about this technology, so this is a huge missed opportunity, as well as a blow to our efforts to address climate change.

Even as the Paris talks were underway, ministers were introducing legislation to Parliament that seeks to block onshore wind farms from receiving subsidies--even when there is strong local support for them to go ahead. Given that onshore wind is the cheapest low-carbon power source, curbing growth in this sector entails a greater reliance on more expensive alternatives. This will increase household energy bills.

Home insulation schemes have also been cut back by more than 50 per cent, which is particularly damaging given that we know that energy efficiency improvements are the cheapest way to cut emissions, as well as a huge driver of job creation and growth. The practical reality of these cuts will be that more families are left in cold homes paying over the odds for their energy bills. Our insulation industries will need to lay people off when they should be hiring new staff in every region of the country.

This list of roll-backs on green policy goes on and on, and reads like a deliberate unpicking of the UK's entire strategy for achieving a smaller carbon footprint for our country, and for making good on the promises the prime minister made at the Paris Summit.

The government is tilting the field towards fossil fuels at the very time that other governments are taking action to do the reverse. For example, the energy secretary Amber Rudd has capped solar support at 100 million [pounds sterling], but decided to subsidise new highly polluting diesel generators to the tune of 175 million [pounds sterling]. (6)

This contrasts strongly with the actions of other countries. Whilst George Osborne and Amber Rudd were cancelling solar projects in the weeks before the Paris Summit, President Obama was announcing his decision to cancel the Keystone oil pipeline, citing the urgency of the threat posed by climate change.

The chancellor's narrative is that dealing with climate change is expensive and poses an unfair burden to energy customers whose bills are already too high. This approach was best summed up by David Cameron's reported instruction to 'cut the green crap' from his government's economic policy.

Even as ministers claim that the chopping and changing of energy policies is about reducing costs to households, their approach may actually raise household fuel bills. Solar and onshore wind are the two cheapest low-carbon options we have. It makes no sense for them to be held back if the aim is to lower costs.

However, it is right to acknowledge that the poorest currently shoulder an unsustainable and unfair proportion of the cost of the energy transition. Research by IPPR showed how the poorest households pay six times more as a proportion of their income in green taxes than the wealthiest. (7) The solution is not to abandon investment in clean energy and energy efficiency, but to find a fairer way of funding it. By insisting lower energy bills and progress on climate change are mutually exclusive, the government's narrative pits the poorest in the UK against the poorest overseas, when in reality both stand to lose out from climate change.

Former US vice-president Al Gore recently argued that Britain has led the world on tackling global warming:
   The UK's historic legacy of leadership on the most important moral
   issues faced by humanity, including the climate crisis, is long and
   has been recognised with respect by the community of nations. It is
   time for the UK government to honour and live up to that legacy,
   and return to its global leadership position, domestically and
   abroad. (8)

The UK government played a critical role at the Kyoto talks, led efforts to create a global climate fund for the world's poorest countries at the Copenhagen Summit, created the first Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and passed the world's first climate change act--years before many countries had woken up to the threat posed by global warming. This was enabled by a political consensus that has held for over a decade. Yet the chancellor's recent string of decisions means that the government's ability to continue to lead the public debate on climate change has been weakened. The consensus is now worryingly fragile.

It should be possible for ministers to bring together those focused on consumer issues, those worried about jobs, and those focused on climate change, to develop a shared energy strategy that can help us reach climate safety without jeopardising our prosperity or breaking the backs of the poorest. Yet the political will simply is not there.

An alternative approach is possible. In the run up to the Paris Conference Labour co-ordinated a joint pledge signed by more than 60 Labour councils to go carbon neutral by 2050, and we are currently developing concrete plans to realise this ambition. As the Leader of Manchester City Council rightly said, the transition will happen 'through acts of leadership by the many, not the few. We are taking action to show a completely clean energy future is both viable and within reach within the course of a generation'. (9)

By involving, supporting, and taking the lead from communities themselves, we will break down the false choice between addressing climate change and keeping costs under control. We can build and deepen the public consensus for action on climate change, and in doing so build the road beyond Paris from the ground up, just as we built the road to it from above.


(1.) Committee on Climate Change, 'UK Floods: Climate Change Likely to Increase Frequency and Magnitude of Severe Flooding Events', 7 December 2015: uk/2015/12/07/uk-floods-climate-change-likely-to-increase-frequency-and-magnitude-ofsevere-flooding-events/.

(2.) P.B. Sayers et al, Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Projections of Future Flood Risk in the UK. Report Prepared for the Committee on Climate Change, UK, London 2015: https:// Main-Report-Final-06Oct2015.pdf.pdf.

(3.) Mark Carney, 'Breaking the tragedy of the horizon: Climate Change and Financial Stability', Speech given at Lloyd's of London, 29 September 2015: www.bankofengland.

(4.) 'Country focus: UK', RECAI 45 (September 2015), 35-8: Power--Utilities/Renewable-Energy-Country-Attractiveness-Index.

(5.) Department for Energy and Climate Change, 'Periodic Review of FITs 2015', 17 December 2015: file/486084/IA--FITs consultation response with Annexes--FINAL SIGNED.pdf.

(6.) Department of Energy and Climate Change, 'T-4 Capacity Market auction 2015 auction monitor report', 7 January 2016: publications/t-4-capacity-market-auction-20i5-auction-monitor-report.

(7.) J. Garman and J. Aldridge, When the levy breaks: Energy bills, green levies and a fairer low-carbon transition, Institute of Public Policy Research, London 2015: publications/when-the-levy-breaks-energy-bills-green-levies-and-a-fairer-low-carbontransition.

(8.) Al Gore urges UK over climate change position', BBC News, 23 September 2015: www.

(9.) 'Most of Britain's major cities pledge to run on green energy by 2050', Guardian, 23 November 2015: talks.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour Member of Parliament for Wigan and Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
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Title Annotation:NOTEBOOK
Author:Nandy, Lisa
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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