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Paris climate deal could be Cameron’s global legacy

In climate policy, all roads lead to the French capital. Evan Gray, CC BY-NC-SA

The G7 leaders have pledged to wean their economies off fossil fuels by the end of the century, as part of a series of commitments in the joint post-summit communique. It’s the first significant climate pledge since the new Conservative government came to power – and it might prove an important indicator of things to come.

After energy and climate change were barely mentioned in the recent election campaign, the G7 represents the first of a series of events which will force the government to reveal its hand. Climate policy may even define UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s legacy on the international stage.

The Conservative manifesto provides some indication of the party’s likely policies: competition to keep energy bills low, securing energy supplies, limiting onshore wind farms, a commitment to meeting the UK’s climate change targets and support for the Climate Change Act. But as yet we know very few details.

This risks leaving a vacuum which could be filled by untruth or misrepresentation. Scientists are having trouble convincing the public about climate science – polling released in early 2015 showed most people in the UK believed the climate was changing but just 18% were “very concerned”.

This raises the important question of which camp our political leaders belong to. Cameron and his new energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, must listen to scientists.

The science is clear on this – climate change is a real phenomenon caused principally by the increasing level of the greenhouse gas, CO2, in the atmosphere. The IPCC states human influence is the “dominant cause” of recent warming.

But the science doesn’t automatically filter through to politicians. The most recent IPCC report is a good example of this. The report included a 30-page “Summary for Policymakers”, which was the subject of intense debate in Copenhagen, with scientists and politicians editing and redrafting the main points. Somewhere in the edit, the scientific findings about the failure of the 1997 Kyoto protocol were chopped down to a pithy bullet point stating that it “offers lessons”. Perhaps our politicians would wish to believe they had achieved more than the scientific data suggested.

Now the G7 is out of the way, the UK won’t have to wait long to show further international leadership and make a substantive and lasting impact on climate change. In December 2015 the world’s leaders will meet in Paris to negotiate an agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. Paris can correct some of Kyoto’s omissions. The US never ratified Kyoto, and China was exempted in 1997 as it was then classified as a developing country. How things have changed – China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

There are promising signs. Rudd has in the past spoken out in support of the IPCC’s work – and Greenpeace described her appointment as a “hopeful sign” that the government remains committed to addressing climate change.

Amber Rudd: good news for scientists? EPA

Closer to home, Rudd will also have to respond to any recommendations from the Competition and Markets’ Authority antitrust probe into the power market and the “Big Six” energy companies. This is likely to occupy a lot of her time. But while it is essential that the UK energy market is fair, transparent and affords all people equitable access to energy, there are bigger concerns on a world stage which need addressing if we are to achieve the 2°C temperature rise target that for many scientists is a “red line”. I hope we might see the UK leading the debate in this area and making a real difference.

Cameron has said this will be his last term as prime minister – and if he wants a truly global legacy there’s always Paris. The UK’s scientists wish him and Rudd every success in this area. All our futures depend on it.

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