Matthew Sinclair

Whatever Chris Huhne says, Durban hasn’t changed anything

Whatever Chris Huhne says, Durban hasn't changed anything
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This morning the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) told us that the climate summit in Durban, which concluded over the weekend, has been ‘heralded a success’. As they say, the ‘talks resulted in a decision to adopt the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol next year in return for a roadmap to a global legal agreement covering all parties for the first time’. Should anyone be heralding that as some kind of step forward? Was I wrong to be sceptical last week?

As it happens, the various parties were actually trying to secure that ‘global legal agreement’, covering all of them, two years ago in Copenhagen — not just talking about securing it in the future. The new roadmap, the ‘Durban Platform’, merely pledges an agreement by 2015, and succeeds the Bali Roadmap that was agreed four years ago and pledged an agreement by 2009. Richard Tol has written about this on his blog, and also notes that ‘Canada, Japan, and Russia have already indicated that they will not take [the new Kyoto commitment period] seriously.’

So, for all the talk of ‘legal force’, the final result is to maintain the status quo. European countries — and particularly Britain, thanks to tougher targets and policies like the carbon floor price which breach the Osborne Doctrine — will keep pressing ahead rationing fossil fuel energy, while the rest of the world does not.

The reality is that even the pretence that Kyoto would be followed by another deal encompassing the other major emitters has now been abandoned. And the timing couldn’t be worse for those backing our draconian climate regulations. Even if the new Platform is any more meaningful than the old Roadmap, they are going to have to sustain the political will behind these policies for years while they get more and more expensive; while the people who pick up the bill are facing more and more pressure on their living standards; and while the rest of the world isn’t playing the same game.

Citigroup put the investment in the energy sector alone required to meet our environmental targets at around £200 billion by 2020. Paying for that and other climate policies will be tough. The Renewable Energy Foundation just released a new report looking at how ‘government energy policies are likely to become a significant contributory factor to increasing the risk of hardship across the entire population, both through direct and indirect effects on bills, and through macroeconomic effects reducing incomes and employment.’ Listening to the grim news from the Autumn Statement, who really thinks we can afford to pile that kind of burden on top of already-pressured family budgets?

As academics like Gwyn Prins have been arguing for some time, the plan that politicians have been working to was quickly patched together from other initiatives that were felt to have worked in addressing very different challenges, from nuclear disarmament to controlling CFCs. It just hasn’t worked. The approach I set out in Let Them Eat Carbon would be more productive: directly support research and development to make low carbon energy cheaper rather than deploying it while it is so expensive; prepare to adapt to any changes in the climate; and build a society free and prosperous enough that it can respond well to whatever the natural environment throws at it.

Heralding dubious successes at Durban won’t mean our climate policy makes sense. We need a more realistic approach that isn’t predicated on a grand global agreement.

Matthew Sinclair is director of the Taxpayers' Alliance.