Jim Watson

When the Climate Change Act was passed, it was rightly promoted as a world-leading piece of legislation. One reason the Act was so ambitious was the high level of cross-party support it received. It was enacted by the Labour government, under pressure to do more on climate change by opposition parties and NGOs.

Five years on, it is worth revisiting some of the criticisms that were made of the draft legislation. Most critics agreed with the principle of climate change mitigation. The political and economic context for climate change policy was more benign that it is today. Instead, they focused on some features of the draft bill that were seen as potentially ineffective.

Scrutiny of the Draft Climate Change Bill was intense following its publication in early 2007. Three Parliamentary inquiries were held: by two House of Commons select committees and an official scrutiny committee of the Commons and the Lords. During their hearings, three issues received particular attention.

First, many argued that the bill’s inclusion of a 60% emissions reduction by 2050 from 1990 levels was not enough. The climate science already showed that the UK would need to cut emissions by more than this to contribute its ‘fair share’ of a global effort to limit average temperature rises to 2°C. This target was changed soon after the bill became law, when the current target of an 80% cut was implemented.

More controversially, many NGOs and the Conservative party pressed the government to implement annual targets rather than the five yearly budgets that were adopted. Whilst it was argued that annual targets would put government under more pressure to comply, the official response that they would be too inflexible looks sensible in retrospect. There have been some big shifts in annual emissions such as the dramatic fall that followed the financial crisis in 2008. Five yearly budgets mean that such short-term changes can be accommodated whist ensuring that overall progress is in the right direction. They also allow for adjustment of policies part way through a budget period if emissions are not on track.

Second, there was extensive debate about the role of the Committee on Climate Change. Inspiration was taken from the institutional arrangements governing monetary policy. As David Cameron wrote in The Independent in October 2006, the Committee would ‘operate in a similar way to the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee. It will have a duty to observe the evolving international science on climate change, and to review the UK’s progress towards meeting its carbon reduction obligations, reporting to Parliament every quarter’. The problem with this analogy is that there is no equivalent of interest rates in climate change policy for the Committee to review and set. No Chancellor would be happy to let such a body dictate the rate of an economy wide carbon tax. But even if this were possible, reducing UK emissions requires a wide range of complementary policies and regulations to be implemented.

There were also concerns that the Committee would not challenge the government when necessary. These concerns partly stemmed from the view of some Ministers who wanted the Committee to confine itself to providing technical advice on targets and budgets. For example, the Minister for science and innovation said that it should not ‘wax wide and lyrical about the whole range of issues, nuclear, renewables and so on’. In practice, the Committee has been relatively uninhibited in its statements – both on the overall trajectory of UK emissions, and on whether specific policies are strong enough to meet carbon budgets. This robust relationship has continued despite the transition to a more party political chair, Lord Deben.

Third, there was a lot of discussion about accountability. What would happen to the government if targets were missing or budgets exceeded? Would there be legal action or sanctions? During evidence sessions, several legal experts told Parliament that the Act would not be enforceable in the courts. The Secretary of State responsible at the time, David Miliband, countered that sanctions would be a last resort: ‘the system is designed to pre-empt the missing of a target … there is provision for banking and borrowing, so there are a number of provisions to help avoid this situation’.

The opposing views of the government and the critics have not yet been put to the test of course. UK emissions are currently well below agreed carbon budget levels. The Committee on Climate Change has stated that compliance with the second budget (2013-17) is likely. But it has also said that the government will need to do more to ensure compliance beyond that, especially if the economic recovery strengthens. Whilst the fourth carbon budget is currently under review at the behest of the Chancellor, it is unlikely that the Committee will call for significant changes of course.

Whatever happens, David Miliband was probably right. It is far more likely that potential breaches of targets or budgets would be known well in advance. If this were to happen in future, it will be essential that the strong scientific and economic arguments for decarbonisation continue to prevail. Barring any radical change to the science, the right response to any shortfall would be to review and strengthen policy action.

This article first appeared on The Guardian website.

Professor Jim Watson is Research Director at the UK Energy Research Centre.