Climate politics has entered a new phase

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Who do you think said this: oil production is “very significant” for our country because we need secure domestic energy supplies.

Or this: we will take “proactive and prudent steps” to advance our climate policies without disrupting people’s lives.

Or this: the “stability and consistency” of our climate policies makes them better than those of other countries.

Here’s a clue. It wasn’t Rishi Sunak, although the UK prime minister has spent weeks insisting domestic oil supplies are vital, and his “pragmatic and proportionate” net zero plans won’t add “hassle to people’s lives”.

Nor was it Sunak’s energy secretary, Grant Shapps, who repeatedly says the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G7 nation and over-delivered on its carbon budgets. It was not in fact anyone in any western nation struggling to decarbonise and keep the lights on affordably.

All three comments came in the past two years from China — the first two from President Xi Jinping, the third from his climate envoy Xie Zhenhua. They echo Sunak and Shapps because of this: the clean energy transition needed to tackle climate change is rarely as unique as it feels.

Parallels abound even in the UK, birthplace of the fossil-fuelled industrial revolution that drove global warming, and China, the world-leading greenhouse gas polluter that will shape the future of that warming.

It’s the extent to which governments manage the energy transition that will ultimately define them. And 2023 is turning into a year like no other for exposing leaders and laggards as rising temperatures press governments to enter uncharted political waters. 

Unlike previous energy transitions from, say, horses to cars or wood to coal, this one has a deadline. The climate extremes seen this year have come when average global temperatures are 1.1C higher than they were before the industrial revolution.

To limit warming to 1.5C, greenhouse gas emissions must nearly halve by 2030 and come down to nearly zero by 2050. That’s hard, when more than 75 per cent of those emissions come from burning fossil fuels that still supply about 80 per cent of the world’s energy. How do you pay for this transition? Can you repurpose fossil fuel infrastructure? What do you do with redundant coal, oil and gas workers? 

I still remember learning on a 2014 trip to Beijing that policymakers there were as divided about climate action as those back home in London. No surprise, since China’s coal companies alone then had about 5mn workers.

China had climate sceptics, too, with one big difference. They claimed climate change was a capitalist plot to stop developing countries industrialising. Western sceptics said it was a socialist hoax designed to undermine capitalism. 

But it’s what happened next that is instructive. By 2014, China’s sceptics were wilting as Beijing embraced a sweeping green growth strategy.

While western leaders mocked wind turbines (Donald Trump) or demanded ministers cut the “green crap” (the UK’s David Cameron) or approvingly brandished coal in parliament (Australia’s Scott Morrison), China was steadily becoming a green energy juggernaut. Today it is a leader in the manufacture and deployment of renewables, batteries and electric vehicles, with a grip on many critical minerals these technologies need. 

To be clear, its fossil fuel thirst is still huge. It issued permits for the equivalent of two new coal power plants a week in 2022 and its emissions are on track to soar to a new annual record this year as its Covid-scarred economy rebounds. But it may also be close to a turning point. This year, renewables and other low-carbon power sources overtook fossil fuel generating capacity for the first time.

Some analysts think these cleaner technologies may soon meet all new energy demand. That could start relegating fossil fuels to structural decline faster than expected and, if it does, some countries will be much more ready to deal with the fallout.

The Biden administration has pushed the US into the clean energy race with the green incentive-packed Inflation Reduction Act it championed. The EU, Japan, Canada and others have this year set out measures in response. But not the UK. As Sunak’s government lags behind in polls ahead of an expected 2024 election, it has delayed its IRA response, vowed to “max out” fossil fuel reserves and review green transport policies. 

As with so much else in transition politics, this might bring short-term gains for Sunak. But the long-term dangers of falling behind in the global economy of the future have never been so apparent.

[email protected]

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.

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