Climate Change Botch?

The publication of the government's draft Climate Change Bill this week signalled the latest round of the escalating competition between David Cameron and Tony Blair to take the title of climate change champion of the world. Following hard on the EU measures, the government's bill set out more radical targets than before and promises to deliver them – a promise that will be reinforced by a new committee of independent auditors.

The bill leaves out shipping and, crucially, aviation, but sets out some key measures: 

  • A series of clear targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions - including making the UK's targets for a 60 per cent reduction by 2050 and a 26 to 32 per cent reduction by 2020 legally binding.
  • A new system of legally binding five year "carbon budgets", set at least 15 years ahead, to provide clarity on the UK's pathway towards its key targets and increase the certainty that businesses and individuals need to invest in low-carbon technologies.
  • A new statutory body, the Committee on Climate Change , to provide independent expert advice and guidance to Government on achieving its targets and staying within its carbon budgets.
  • New powers to enable the Government to more easily implement policies to cut emissions.
  • A new system of annual open and transparent reporting to Parliament. The Committee on Climate Change will provide an independent progress report to which the Government must respond. This will ensure the Government is held to account every year on its progress towards each five year carbon budget and the 2020 and 2050 targets.
  • A requirement for Government to report at least every five years on current and predicted impacts of climate change and on its proposals and policy for adapting to climate change.

Good intentions indeed. But last week's Sustainable Development Commission's audit published an embarrassing list of government departments that had failed to meet their own environmental and emissions targets: it's a healthy reminder that results tend to fall short of promises.  For the new climate measures, delivery and enforceability are the things to watch.    

Government critics might also note that some of the more radical ideas floated by the Minister for the Environment, David Milliband, have been ignored. Milliband recently proposed moving towards individual carbon allowances. This is not a measure that could be introduced overnight, but the government's proposals made no nod in this direction, not even a promise of an experimental scheme.

One striking aspect of the debate is the growing policy similarity between all parties: all parties essentially agree the basics: we need a price for carbon in our economy, we need to start budgeting our use of carbon more effectively and efficiently, and we need to play a part in a reformed ETS. The state of California still holds the record for the first and most radical climate measures, but if this bill becomes law, it will count as a good start and one that is potentially useful in the effort to bring China and India on board the mitigation effort. That, of course, is the real prize.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2007

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