The rough with the smooth

Cottam coal-fired power plantImage copyright
Getty Images

With UN climate talks under way in Poland, pressure is on for nations to cut carbon emissions fast. The UK says it’s a leader in climate change – but is it?

Here’s a list of the good and bad in terms of the UK’s climate change record – depending on your point of view.

Five good things (from a government perspective)

The British government claims to be a leader in cutting carbon emissions – here are five achievements of present and past administrations.

Climate change act

Ten years ago, the UK passed the Climate Change Act, which binds ministers to cutting at least 80% of emissions by 2050. It has inspired other governments from around the world by proving we can have strong economic growth whilst cutting emissions. Scientists say that targets must now be tougher.

Climate change committee

Ministers created an independent Climate Change Committee to advise on the cheapest and most effective ways of cutting carbon emissions. The government has exceeded its short-term targets, but it’s slipping away from medium-term goals – and advisers say it’ll face a huge challenge if it raises ambition to tackle 100% of emissions by 2050.

The science

The UK consistently over-achieves on climate science. Despite spending cuts, Britain continues to supply a disproportionate number of lead scientists for influential UN reports warning of the urgency of climate change.

The City

The Bank of England governor Mark Carney took a global stand by warning firms that fossil fuel assets may lose value as we tackle climate change. Some financial institutions have started to take notice, but environmentalists complain that many are pursuing business as usual.

Auctioning subsidies

It sounds obscure – but the UK introduced a system in which wind power firms wanting financial support had to bid at auction. Alongside earlier support, and technology innovation, this auction process has radically forced down the price of offshore wind.

Five bad things (from an environmentalist perspective)

Environmentalists accept that the UK has taken a leadership role in the past, but they argue that their ambitions are too low. Many campaigners also say that ministers have made too many policy U-turns. Here are five of their complaints.

Image copyright
Getty Images

Onshore wind

Onshore wind is our cheapest clean energy source and government surveys show it’s liked by most people. In 2015, ministers decided to virtually block new onshore wind power in the UK after back-bench MPs said it was unpopular. Ministers said local people should have a veto over wind turbines.


Ministers urge people to cycle to improve health and reduce pollution – yet local councils can’t afford to fill potholes. Meanwhile, £30bn has being spent on new trunk roads. The government is accused of favouring big infrastructure over small with policies such as an expansion of aviation. Ministers say roads and runways are needed to meet future demand.


Local commuter rail services get people out of cars but they are starved on funding. Meanwhile, countless billions are being spent on high speed long distance rail. Ministers say rail capacity must be increased.


One of David Cameron’s aides was once said to have promised to “get rid of the green crap”. Later on, the government cut support for solar energy. It infuriated investors and halved the industry. Ministers said solar should stand on its own feet.


Climate change can’t be tackled unless homes stay warm better. But after the government cut grants, insulation numbers dropped by 90%. Ministers also killed a plan at the last minute for zero-carbon homes. They said it would raise the cost of housing.

The Committee on Climate Change say policies needing immediate action are: home insulation and low-carbon heating low-cost renewables (including onshore wind), energy efficiency and electric vehicles.

In addition, the government needs to also kick-start new industries in carbon capture and storage and hydrogen. In the longer-term, the biggest challenges will be reducing emissions from aviation, industry, and agricultural sectors.

Follow Roger on Twitter.

UN climate conference 03 Dec- 14 Dec 2018

The summit comes three years after the 2015 Paris accord on climate change, at which all countries agreed a plan to limit carbon emissions. Now is the moment governments must start deciding what to do to make sure that plan is put into effect.

  • In graphics: Seven charts that show the rate of warming
  • Advice: What can I do to help?
  • Latest updates: See the BBC News page (or follow “Climate change” tag in the BBC News app)