As has been widely reported, Sweden aims to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free nation before the end of the century, and several other nations are not far behind. However, the world isn’t necessarily following suit, and the United Nations’ chief environmental scientist has singled out one of them for particular criticism: the United Kingdom.
Professor Jacquie McGlade told BBC News that the United Kingdom was making a marked shift away from clean, renewable energy as the rest of the world appeared to be rushing towards it. The U.K. isn’t the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide – the U.S. and China, India and Brazil far outstrip it – but it is part of the European Union, which collectively is third on this ignoble list. Within the EU, it is one of the most influential member states, meaning that any inaction on climate change could dampen general enthusiasm for international mitigation efforts.
“What I'm seeing worldwide is a move very much towards investment in renewable energy. To counterbalance that you see [in the U.K.] the withdrawal of subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels,” Professor McGlade told BBC News. “What's disappointing is when we see countries such as the United Kingdom that have really been in the lead in terms of getting their renewable energy up and going – [now] we see subsidies being withdrawn and the fossil fuel industry being enhanced.”
Indeed, subsidies on renewable energy have been falling dramatically, scaring off investors and leading to the abandonment of 23 large-scale renewable projects this year alone. Subsidies in wind and solar have been slashed, and any carbon capture and storage plans have been kicked into the long grass. Meanwhile, tax rates have been cut and investment has increased in the oil and gas industry following the global slump in crude oil prices.
The 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Paris at the end of November. Although the outlook for the planet often seems decidedly grim, with ecosystems across the world suffering greatly and many low-lying cities already doomed by rising tides with increasingly acidic waters, there are frequently signs of hope, too. The International Energy Agency, the foremost nonpartisan organization on energy generation, has recently said that by 2020 over a quarter of the world will be powered by renewable energy, with China – the world’s largest carbon emitter – unexpectedly leading the pack. Even the U.S., hampered by obstructionism and misinformation in Congress, has seen some progress primarily through executive action by the Obama administration.
The U.K.’s response to the Fukushima crisis in Japan, unlike some European nations, was not to mothball its nuclear power stations but to instead increase the nation's nuclear power generation. Nuclear power plants currently have a carbon footprint more in line with renewable energy plants including solar and wind, so in terms of combating global warming, this will help balance the reduction in subsidies for renewables somewhat. Nevertheless, the U.K. government’s lack of clarity, long-term goals and unwillingness to invest in renewable energy will certainly give off the wrong signal in Paris this November.