Wednesday, March 14, 2007

UK Parliament Draft Climate Change Bill

A Bill which makes reducing carbon emissions a legal duty

Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

Independent 14 March 2007

Targets are the easiest things in the world to set. The act of setting one costs you nothing. You've got a target? OK, I'll set a bigger one. But delivering them is a different matter entirely.
Yesterday the Government unveiled the world's first delivery system for the targets involved in radically cutting back the gases that are causing global warming. It is based on two simple principles: make the targets legally binding, and map out the road towards them in detail.
The system is enshrined in the Climate Change Bill, unveiled by the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, which proposes to set into law the crucial aim of cutting the UK's CO2 emissions by 60 per cent, on 1990 levels, by 2050, and lays out a statutory path towards that from which it will be very hard, if not impossible, for any future government to stray.
The 60 per cent figure is one that might once have appeared very ambitious, but recent estimates of just how quickly climate change is now progressing ­ the world's ice is melting everywhere before our very eyes ­ have made it seem the very least that will have to be done, by Britain and other countries, if the earth is to escape the catastrophic consequences of runaway atmospheric warming, from mass agricultural failure to world-wide sea level rise.
Yet until now that 60 per cent has just been a target ­ first suggested by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and subsequently adopted with enthusiasm by Tony Blair. And targets to cut CO2, in the climate change business have been bandied about for nearly 20 years in many countries, with very few of them being achieved.
Indeed, hovering in the background to the Government's initiative yesterday was its own chastening experience of setting a target for cutting Britain's CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by 2010. It was solemnly repeated in three separate election manifestos, one after the other, yet is not now going to be met.
In 1994, Labour's shadow environment secretary Chris Smith produced with his political adviser, Stephen Tindale, the party's first wide-ranging review of environmental policy, entitled In Trust for Tomorrow. Among many other proposals, the document made the radical suggestion that a Labour government should pledge to cut Britain's CO2 emissions by 20 per cent by the year 2010.
Although it would be going too far to say that this figure was simply plucked out of the air, it was certainly chosen without any detailed analysis of whether or not it was achievable. Yet it was then made official party policy, and repeated as a pledge in election manifestos in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
It came back to haunt the Government. By autumn 2005 it was clear that, despite all the climate change measures the Government was putting in place, the 20 per cent by 2010 aim just could not be achieved. A year ago last week Margaret Beckett, environment secretary at the time, was forced to admit this in public.
It was a hugely embarrassing and damaging admission for the Blair administration, because up until then this target had been its flagship green policy. And it has clearly taught the Government a painful but essential lesson: delivery is what counts.
If the science tells us that a 60 per cent cut by 2050 is now vital, how do you nail the thing down, make absolutely certain it is achieved?
The answer is you turn it into statute, and you treat the national carbon accounts like the national money accounts; you create a carbon version of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. And to do this you need national carbon budgets just like you need money budgets, rolling into the future. You need to state exactly how much carbon the country can afford to emit by a given date, just like you need to set out how much money the Government intends to borrow.
The Climate Change Bill proposes to set this system up, with something extra: a powerful watchdog body to advise on the budgets and oversee the Government's performance.
Eye-catching initiatives have been the lifeblood of the image-obsessed Blair Government, and some of them have seemed distinctly less original when examined under the political microscope; there have been not a few cases of the same tranche of funding being announced more than once. But what was announced yesterday is genuinely original. It is the first such system in the world, and the Government's hope is not only that it will demonstrate the UK's leadership in the search for a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which runs out in 2012, but also that the system will be imitated as widely as possible elsewhere.
Let's give credit where it's due: the idea of making CO2 cuts legally binding was first floated two years ago by Friends of the Earth, frustrated at missed targets. FoE campaigners drew up a draft bill, introduced into Parliament before the last election by three senior green-minded MPs: John Gummer and Michael Meacher, who had been Tory and Labour environment secretaries, and Norman Baker, who held the Liberal Democrats' environment portfolio. From then on FoE pushed the idea relentlessly in a campaign entitled The Big Ask, securing the signatures of more than 400 MPs in an Early Day Motion. FoE received its reward last November when the inclusion of a Climate Bill in the Queen's Speech showed that Mr Blair and Mr Miliband had been persuaded that this was an idea whose time had come.
The targets
The Bill proposes to set into law both the target of reducing the UK's carbon emissions by 60 per cent, from their 1990 levels, by 2050, and the intermediate target of reducing them by 26 to 32 per cent by 2020.
Emissions in 1990 were 590 million tonnes of CO2; the 2020 intermediate target equates to between 405 and 440 million tonnes; and the 2050 target is 240 million tonnes. That is the figure to bear in mind: by mid-century, Britain's economy, homes, energy generation and transport, all must be emitting between them no more than 240 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. (The figure in 2005 was 542 million tonnes.)
A technical note: in the past, Britain has expressed its emissions in millions of tonnes of carbon, not carbon dioxide, which is a lower figure (as it does not take account of the weight of the oxygen atoms in the CO2 molecules).
In future everything will be referred to in carbon dioxide terms. To convert carbon to carbon dioxide, multiply the carbon figure by 44/12.
The budgets
The Bill introduces a system of national carbon budgeting which will cap the UK's national emissions over five-year periods.
Friends of the Earth, which originally campaigned for a climate Bill, called for annual budgets, that is, guaranteed reductions in CO2 emissions of at least 3 per cent annually. David Miliband has rejected this as too inflexible - the power demand of a very cold winter might easily break a budget. Instead, the Government is bringing forward five-year budgets, to allow for adjustments, and it will be doing them three budgets at a time into the future so that industry can plan its investment.
The first three budgets will be for the periods 2008-12, 2013-17, and 2018-22. That means that when the first budgets are set, in 18 months' time, Britain's national carbon budget for 2022, in millions of tonnes of CO2, will already be known.
The Government points out that what it is offering, in annual terms, is accountability, from a new watchdog body.
The 'Climate tsar' and his committee
One of the Bill's most innovative proposals is to establish a new statutory, independent body to advise on the national carbon budgets and to report annually on progress towards achieving them; it will probably be called the Climate Change Committee.
In some respects the body will be similar to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, but it will not itself set the carbon budgets, as the Bank of England independently sets interest rates; it will merely advise, and the final decision on the budgets will be left to the Government.
Although this is a criticism of the opposition parties, in practice, the committee's advice is unlikely to be disregarded.
Its members will all be eminent in their fields, and its chairman will be a very powerful public figure in Britain's climate change debate: in tabloid newspaper terms, he will be the Climate tsar or Britain's Mr Carbon, and he will be at liberty (and expected) to lambast the Government as required in his annual report if progress towards the low-carbon economy is not being made fast enough.
His appointment may even come this year, perhaps while Mr Blair is still in office. Expect a very senior, respected business figure with a strong record of public service.
The penalties
Putting climate targets into law means that if you fail to meet them, you can expect the law to punish you. This is perhaps the least clear aspect of the Bill: what if the Government does not hit the mark in 2020 or 2050, in spite of everything? Certainly, it would be "named and shamed" and the adverse publicity would be such that no government would want to endure it.
However, there may be further penalties: to miss the statutory targets would open the Government to a judicial review of its performance, which might be sought by environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace.
If the courts found against the Government it would be open to them, for example, to order ministers to buy carbon credits (representing emissions achieved by other countries) to meet the target, at a potential cost of many millions of pounds.
The timescale
The Bill is going out for a three-month public consultation period, and it will probably be brought before Parliament around October this year.
If all goes to schedule it should receive royal assent around April 2008, and the Climate Change Committee has to present its opinions about what the carbon budgets should be by 1 September next year.
The Government will decide on the precise levels of Britain's first three national carbon budgets by 31 December 2008. The Climate Change Committee will be up and running in the next 12 months.
What will it lead to - in the near term?
The new legal framework for tackling global warming in Britain is beyond all else a forceful driver of the kind of technological, economic and social changes which will be needed to bring about the vital low-carbon economy.
The changes must come in three areas, electricity generation, home heating and transport; they will need such developments as renewable energy (and possibly nuclear power), increased energy efficiency and zero-carbon homes, and new vehicle technologies involving electric and possibly hydrogen-powered cars.
Making the fight against climate change a legal requirement on ministers means they will push all of these changes as hard as they have to be pushed, and it puts global warming officially at the top of the national agenda alongside the economy and national security - which is where it needs to be.

Defra News release about the Draft Climate Change Bill: includes the full text of the Bill and accompanying documents (179p)


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