The British government is trying to water down European targets on climate change, despite the fact the UK will be leaving the EU in under two years' time. Why is it bothering?
Documents leaked to environmental campaigner Greenpeace show Prime Minister Theresa May and her government are seeking to reduce targets in Europe's climate change-fighting Energy Efficiency Directive and make them non-binding, even though the regulations in question would not come into force until after Brexit. Some critics have even accused her of being a "mole" for Donald Trump and his climate change-denying ways.
In one case, the leaked documents—submitted the day before Article 50 was filed to formally initiate Brexit—show British negotiators wanted energy efficiency headline targets for 2030 held at the current 27 percent rather than increased to the EU's new goal of 30 percent, and changed from binding to "indicative".
Those three percentage points will make a big difference, according to figures from Friends of the Earth. Each percentage point translates to an annual savings in CO2 emissions equivalent to 12 million cars on the road—and the current Conservative government has been criticised for its "weak" efforts on addressing British air pollution.
Why is the British government taking the effort to water down such rules? Greenpeace suggested two possibilities: that the directives may still apply to the UK if it stays part of the energy single market, and simple inertia. "Until we have formally left the EU, representatives may have been advised to continue their work as if nothing is changing," a spokesperson told Motherboard via email.
Tom Burke, founding director of climate change think tank E3G, said in a phone call with Motherboard there's no clear reason, but suggested the efforts to water down EU laws may be a reflection of domestic energy policy and in particular a reaction—consciously or not—to its decision to increase its nuclear power generation via the controversial £24 billion Hinkley Point C plant.
As part of that project, prices have been preset at £92.50 per megawatt hour—they're currently about £38 per megawatt hour. "Every time someone [reduces] using electricity, you're attacking the wholesale price," he noted. "Basically you knock the foundations of the economics for nuclear power."
By the time Hinkley Point C comes online—which Burke predicted would be around 2030—even the lowest projections for renewables penetration by the National Grid means there will be "long periods between April and October where there's so much renewable [energy] on the system," he said. "In order to take the electricity you've already paid for [from Hinkley Point C]… you will have to pay renewables generators to stop selling you cheaper electricity." And that's alongside already paying more for power.
Anything that encourages renewables or discourages energy use—such as the EU regulations—will worsen that problem, he said. "Don't ask me to explain how the government's got itself into a position of such profound idiocy, I can't."
As the UK is in the middle of a general election, the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy told Greenpeace's EnergyDesk that decisions on "energy efficiency policy would be a matter for the next government." Keep that in mind when voting on June 8, then.
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