Despite the warnings that this climate conference could never be successful, COP28 opened to a generally positive reception. Eye-catching announcements on tripling renewables and support for developing countries affected by climate change were agreed quickly. Although COP28 subsequently ran into some significant stumbling blocks, particularly over the debate between phasing out versus phasing down fossil fuels, welcome new commitments were made in the final text. We should keep celebrating steps forward and push back against the negativity around climate action.
Talking down our record on climate action is a mistake. When we make progress we should welcome it. Of course, there will be more to do, but we have become so used to the pessimism of both extremes in the climate debate that we don’t defend, let alone celebrate, our successes. We can’t become fatalistic about climate change.
Conservative governments have been the key orchestrators of successive global climate and nature conferences. When we hosted COP26, our diplomatic efforts were critical in securing the final agreement that helped keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees alive and in signing up countries for deals on protecting forests and cutting methane emissions.
As the then COP President’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, I know from months before and two weeks in Glasgow just how much work the government put in to make progress on these negotiations and get every country to agree. This ensured countries were ready to agree a deal once we got to Glasgow. And yet, once again, we have done little to celebrate what a Conservative government does on the international stage.
Domestically too we have a lot to be proud of. We have rightly talked up the fact we were the first industrialised nation to set a net zero target in law, but what put us in that position was a decade of quiet and practical action in reducing our emissions, and increasing our energy security, to the point that net zero by 2050 became a realistic goal. In 2008 under Labour, four-fifths of our electricity came from fossil fuels, and they rowed back from new nuclear commitments. In 2010, a Conservative-led government came in and, through a carbon price and a contracts for difference scheme, encouraged private investment in renewables, while pushing coal off the grid. This is something that many nations raise in private with a quiet aside, “seriously, how have you done this?”
The fact that we aren’t talking about these domestic and international achievements or our ambitions for COP28 is a shame. Our positive actions on climate change may well be one of the most important legacies of successive Conservative governments. We’ve played a positive role in the negotiations, pushing other countries to agree on bold language for phasing out unabated fossil fuels. Yet at the moment we seem too shy to own this.
I want balance in the way we discuss this technological transition. I’m teased as a tree hugger but, the key word in net zero is the ‘net’ . Something that too often gets lost in the heat of the debate, but we mustn’t lose sight of the light we’ve already generated over the course of this government: skilled green jobs across the country, economic growth, technological innovations aplenty and world leading emissions reductions. While it’s a good thing economically, it is also politically important for us as a party to keep leading the way, especially among younger voters.
Celebrating our successes is even more important domestically because we need this momentum to keep us moving forward with reducing emissions. As the climate continues to change and the costs of extreme weather begin to stack up in the UK, we can’t afford to slow down. Already climate change costs us 1.1.% of our GDP, and without action that figure risks rising to 7.4% of GDP by 2100. We have to keep taking pragmatic steps to cut our emissions, encourage the rest of the world to join us, and limit the impacts of climate change, while ensuring the costs of the transition are fair and affordable.
We’ve built up a strong competitive advantage over the years as green tech companies have invested in the UK. Pulling back from climate action means losing this investment to other countries who are offering generous incentives. There are benefits to the UK from being the first mover in new industries, like carbon capture and small modular reactors, and from exporting the technology around the world. We cannot rest on our laurels.
Neither should we allow any perception of retreat from the global stage to grow. Many countries, especially in the Global South, can only hope to decarbonise, mitigate and adapt to climate change with significant support. The prime minister has announced £1.6bn in climate finance during this COP with more than £300 million of this for clean energy projects in the global south. We’ve played a crucial role in getting deals with countries like Vietnam and South Africa to wean them off coal power. We can use this money to mobilise more private finance and encourage investment into these countries. The opportunities for private UK businesses are huge, something I saw first hand when I was the Trade Envoy to Mozambique.
And our global security is part of this too, frankly, if we don’t support this transition, someone else will. And they may trap developing countries with unsustainable levels of debt that they can exploit to their geopolitical advantage.
So we should welcome the positive progress agreed at this COP meeting in Dubai as well as celebrating our record here in the UK. Demonstrating that action on climate change is practical and economically beneficial will give us the confidence to keep moving forwards and cutting emissions.
First published by CapX. Katherine Fletcher MP (South Ripple) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.