The Obama effect: will the UK up its climate game?

If US President Barack Obama continues to make a strong case for climate action, there will be increasing pressure on our own prime minister to follow suit, observes Gareth Kane

Hurricane Sandy hit New York on 29 October 2012, the highest profile victim in a trail of destruction across the Caribbean and North America. Sandy killed at least 70 people and caused several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of damage. But its impact was way more far-reaching as it coincided with the peak of the US Presidential election. Suddenly it was ok to talk about climate change in US politics.

Last month re-elected US president Barack Obama made good on his post-Sandy promise to tackle climate change head launching his Climate Change Action Plan with a major speech at Georgetown University. It certainly wasn’t Obama’s oratorical highpoint. Wilting under (appropriately) high temperatures and competing (ironically) with aircraft flying overhead every few minutes, it was half an hour of hard slog for the president.

However, it was a great speech in terms of content. Obama deftly reframed a low carbon economy as an economic opportunity for the US, not a threat, and wisely wrapped the whole issue in the Stars and Stripes – making tackling climate change a patriotic duty for a country that takes patriotism very seriously.

The impact of such clear leadership was instant with shares in coal companies tumbling before he’d started to speak. There’s a real contrast with the UK situation where government performance outstrips rhetoric. A recent Green Alliance report found that 70% of the Treasury’s new infrastructure projects could be classified as ‘low carbon’, making it a world leader in stimulating the green economy.

The country now boasts the world’s largest offshore wind farm and has just approved an even bigger one. The CBI found that a third of all economic growth in the UK was contributed by the green economy.

Despite these achievements, words of support rarely pass the Chancellor George Osborne’s lips. His boss, Prime Minister David Cameron, isn’t much better, lending lukewarm support when he could be making a reasonably robust case for achieving his earlier ambition to lead ‘the greenest government ever’. This lack of clear commitment is causing uncertainty in the green sector, holding it back from making even bigger leaps forward.

But what will the impact of Obama’s Climate Change Action Plan be on the UK? On the face of it, there will be little direct impact, as the plan predominantly focuses on internal US energy, transportation and climate resilience policies, whereas in the UK action is largely driven from policies agreed in Europe. European standards are generally tighter than their US equivalents, so it is unlikely that our exporters to the US will struggle with the new regime.

On the other hand, there are likely to be a number of indirect influences. For starters, the US shale gas revolution has already driven down the price of coal which in turn led to a rise in coal consumption and carbon emissions in the UK last year. The Tyndall Centre has estimated that roughly half the carbon savings in the US were offset by coal exports, a rebound effect that makes gas as a carbon-cutting option a lot less attractive.

With the UK is making its own first tentative steps along the shale gas path and introducing a raft of tax changes, we are entering a very complex shifting landscape of supply and demand for fossil fuels. This makes predicting the impact of Obama’s plans on international carbon emissions almost impossible to call.

A more upbeat message is that increased global demand for clean energy systems is already leading to plummeting capital costs and has stimulated innovation. According to The Economist, the price of solar energy has fallen by a factor of 100 since 1977, has halved in the last 5 years, and continues to improve by 14% per year. Higher demand from the US, along with Obama’s promise to seek a free trade deal in renewables, is likely to maintain or accelerate this trend.

Obama’s pledge to work harder for an international agreement contrasts strongly with his predecessors’ disdain for binding international action. However, given the cycle time of an international agreement, it is very unlikely that Obama would be in the Oval Office at the point of ratification. Therefore it is impossible to know whether this pledge will ever bear fruit.

But if Obama continues to make a strong case for climate action, there will be increasing pressure on David Cameron to follow suit. The PM is an Atlanticist and he will feel peer pressure from the US more strongly than that from Europe. Perhaps with the UK green sector booming, and with the other two main UK political parties playing the green card, he may feel it is time to stand up and lead on this issue once more. We live in hope, anyway.

The original version of this article can be viewed here on Gareth’s blog

Gareth Kane is managing director of Terra Infirma

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie