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Can the UK follow Obama’s climate lead?

Barack Obama is setting out his vision for US climate action on Monday, and what is most striking of all is the tone. For a long time the US was considered a slow mover in taking serious steps to reduce the threat that a changing climate causes to food security, to public health and to the environment.

Obama, keenly aware that this generation of politicians will be judged by whether or not we showed the ability to plan ahead to protect the future of our planet, clearly wants to change that.

Here in the UK, the direction of travel that has been set by the government in its first few months could not be more different. In her first major speech on climate change last week, the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, sympathised with “the suspicion of those who see climate action as some sort of cover for anti-growth, anti-capitalist, proto-socialism”.

She also said that the UK should travel only in step with the rest of the world, suggesting we should no longer seek to show the kind of leadership that Labour demonstrated in passing the Climate Change Act: a world first, which not only commanded an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, with just five MPs voting against it, but also inspired action in countries around the globe.

In doing so, she forgot that it is only through leadership at home that we can have influence abroad. At the very time that China, America and much of the rest of the world has shown there is a desire for strong global action, it is unforgivable that the Tory government is showing such a lack of ambition.

The areas that the US plan chooses to focus on in setting the US on the right course in the run up to the UN climate change conference in Paris this year are instructive.

Investment in low carbon energy is promoted not just because of the environmental benefits but also the economic benefits and the ability to create thousands of jobs. Energy efficiency programmes targeted at low income communities are promoted not only because they reduce carbon emissions but because they cut energy bills. Carbon capture and storage and nuclear play a role as part of a wide portfolio of technologies that can reduce carbon, with the onus on states themselves to decide how to reach targets.

But what is most eye-catching is the political will on display. Despite an expected ‘tsunami’ of litigation, the right in America is set to be faced down by a president intent on building a consensus on tackling climate change rooted in the centre ground.

In the UK, by contrast, the Tories’ creeping hostility to action on climate change, which started on the backbenches but now appears to have spread to government, is feeding through into policy changes.

Support for onshore wind and solar power has been undermined, damaging confidence in the renewables sector more widely. The green deal home improvement programme, which was supposed to be the biggest home improvement plan since the second world war, has been scrapped. Zero Carbon Homes have gone the same way despite it being far easier to reduce carbon emissions and cut bills by building homes to a higher standard than retro-fitting them. And the government are yet to commit to pushing the EU towards a tougher target heading into Paris (something we pushed for in our first Opposition Day debate of the parliament), despite our domestic targets currently being tougher.

A strong agreement in Paris at the end of the year is vital, as is a recognition that the conference should be part of an ongoing process that includes regular reviews to ensure that we remain on course not to exceed 2C warming. At the moment momentum is building internationally, a really positive sign.

Our own government needs to make sure that the gap between its rhetoric and its policy doesn’t begin to stretch our credibility to breaking point.

Caroline Flint