Kwasi Kwarteng: Recent policy decisions send mixed messages on UK climate action

BEIS Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has admitted that the UK needs a stronger and more joined-up policy framework to deliver its net-zero target and claimed that decisions such as not blocking a new coal mine in Cumbria "send mixed messages".

Kwarteng was recently promoted from Energy Minister, allowing Alok Sharma to serve full-time as COP26 President 

Kwarteng was recently promoted from Energy Minister, allowing Alok Sharma to serve full-time as COP26 President 

In a conversation with the Institute for Government’s director Bronwen Maddox earlier today (11 February), Kwarteng was asked to outline BEIS’s priorities for COP26 and to comment on the green policy decisions that have made headlines since Parliament returned from winter recess last month.

The COP26 Unit, now headed full-time by former BEIS Secretary Alok Sharma, recently outlined its five key themes for the conference in November: clean energy, clean transport, nature-based solutions, adaptation and resilience and climate finance.

Kwarteng made reference to the first three topics in his speech. On clean energy and transport, he said the Government is keen to build on the initial funding provided through the Ten-Point Plan with longer-term policy supports for hydrogen, electric vehicle manufacturing and charging, wind energy and battery storage.

And, on nature, he referenced the launch of a £10m fund for nature-based climate solutions by Defra this week, building on the Department’s investments in conversation, restoration and academic research in this field. The UK Government also notably contributed to the landmark Dasgupta Review outlining how businesses and policymakers can factor the true value of nature into decision-making processes.

However, some viewers have expressed concerns that mentions of climate adaptation and public sector finance were absent from Kwarteng’s comments. This is despite the fact that the UK recently published its official climate adaptation plans and is encouraging other countries to follow suit, and that the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) Sixth Carbon Budget advice warns that the private sector will need to deliver the bulk of the financing for the pace and scale of decarbonisation it is recommending. The body is urging the UK to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, against a 1990 baseline. In comparison, the UK had been targeting an 80% reduction between 1990 and 2050 before it legislated for net-zero.

Cumbria coal mine

As the conversation progressed, Maddox quizzed Kwarteng on the Government’s decision not to intervene with Cumbria County Council’s decision to grant planning permission for the UK’s first deep coal mine in more than three decades.

The Council granted planning permission late last year, citing the project’s job creation potential and emphasising the fact that coal extracted will be used for coking in the steel industry, rather than for electricity generation or domestic heat. It was argued that the steel sector, unlike electricity generation, will need fossil fuels for some time to come and that it is better to produce it domestically than to import it.

Green groups, community organisations and some MPs, including BEIS’s Shadow Secretary Ed Miliband, have said that this decision was misaligned with the UK’s net-zero target in spite of these considerations. “A new mine is neither the answer for climate change nor the answer for our steel industry,” Miliband has previously said.

Cumbria County Council this week said the planning application would need to be reviewed once more, as the initial decisions were made without consideration of the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget recommendations.

Kwarteng – as he has done previously – said that the arguments for and against the mine were “finely balanced”. 

He said: “The view was that it was a local decision, so it was the local council that decided to give the go-ahead to the coal mine.

“The Secretary of State [Robert Jenrick] didn't overrule them, in the interests of local power, local devolution.

“I think it was a finely balanced argument in terms of the fact that if you don't produce coking coal, and you have blast furnace steel, which we have, they are going to end up importing the coking coal anyway.

“In terms of the global reduction of emissions it doesn't actually make an effect, it actually increases it because you're essentially shutting down a domestic source of coking coal and importing it from halfway around the world.”

Kwarteng did admit, however, that the impact of the decision lies not only in the emissions that will be generated by the extracted coal, but the message sent ahead of COP26. Indeed, the mine has been vocally criticised by climate campaigner Greta Thunberg.

All in all, Kwarteng admitted that world leaders who will be invited to COP26 may get “mixed messages” about the UK’s climate approach.

Other announcements that have drawn scrutiny about the UK’s international perception as host include the decision to delay the Environment Bill and the Heat and Buildings Strategy; the approval of a £27.4bn roads plan and issues with the delivery of the Green Homes Grant. On the latter, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for BEIS Lord Callanan admitted this week that just 20,000 of the 600,000 vouchers promised under the two-year scheme have been allocated.

Kwarteng reiterated the Government’s commitment to delivering a comprehensive net-zero roadmap, outlining the direction of travel for all high-emitting sectors, ahead of COP26. This framework will summarise the key requirements for businesses from policy packages including the National Infrastructure Strategy, Environment Bill, 25-Year Environment Plan, Clean Growth Strategy, Industrial Strategy and Energy White Paper. It may also contain interim, sector-specific emissions targets. 

Bodies including the Aldersgate Group have been continually pressing the Government to product the roadmap and, in general, to take a more joined-up and cross-departmental approach to delivering the net-zero transition.

“It was great to hear the Business Secretary recognise that the policy framework to support a route to net-zero for the UK needs strengthening – without the direction of travel being clearly set out through policy and regulation we will not be successful in decarbonising at the rate we need to,” Ramboll UK’s managing principal of environment and health Philippa Spence said.

Sarah George



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