Brits Bid for Climate Leadership

While Al Gore may be the intellectual godfather of climate action, since the beginning of the decade, leadership on climate issues has passed to the Europeans.  On Wednesday, in the wake of the inconclusive G-8 summit in Italy, Britain announced a new muscular and not inexpensive set of measures to strengthen its climate effort.  The goal of the Low Carbon Transition Plan is to make sure that Britain meets the goal of reducing emissions 34% by 2020.  It includes a commitment to creating 1.2 million green jobs.  It will also give the government new powers to ensure that the UK produces 40% of its energy from renewable and nuclear sources six times what it does today, by 2020.

After the dispiriting Bush years that saw the rollback of environmental progress, many in the climate community, including many in Europe had been looking to Barack Obama to play the role that Al Gore might have played had he been elected president. President Obama has reversed the Bush policies, however, he has elected to leave most of the details of climate policy to Congress.

The British plan released in conjunction with a plans for Low Carbon Transport and Renewable Energy is clearly designed to stake out a British leadership position ahead of the Copenhagen meeting.  The British goal of reducing emissions 34% by 2020 is far more aggressive than any targets set here in the US which typically run closer to 20% by 2020 and postpone major reduction far into the future.

Before breaking out the champagne to toast the British, it is important to note a portion of the expected low carbon electricity will come from nuclear sources.  France already generates 80% of its electricity from zero carbon nuclear plants.  Britain's inclusion of nuclear sources in its overall target means that the roadmap is about tapping nuclear as well as renewable power.

However, if a large share of 30% is from renewable power as anticipated in the roadmap, that would be significant.  A 15% renewable electricity standard is present in the Waxman Markey bill just passed by the House and a Senate energy bill championed by Senator Bingaman has a similar standard.  (The British Renewable Energy Strategy plan calls for 15% of all energy including that for heat and transport to come from renewable sources by 2020.)  In the wake of the British announcement, Al Gore renewed his call for the US to produce all its electricity from renewable sources within 10 years.  Currently, Denmark gets about 20% of its power from renewable sources and Germany gets about 15%.  (By comparison, the US gets under 3% of its electricity from non-hyrdo renewable sources.  To catch up with Denmark or Germany, Britain and the US have a long distance to go.

Britain's plan also appears to include a large government role--perhaps a larger one than would be advisable for the US since while government leadership is important, the innovation needed to create new industries and jobs is better left to industry.  It would be a mistake, for example, for the British to roll back what has been one of the more successful electricity deregulation regimes.

Ultimately, however, the British plan is to be commended insofar as it shows that Britain's Labor Government takes climate seriously.  The US should view their bid as friendly competition as we refine our still fuzzy strategy for addressing climate change.