To coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Climate Change Act receiving Royal Assent in the UK in November 2008, the Energy Institute convened a ‘virtual panel’ of ten figures who were in leading positions at the time - six of them now Fellows of the EI - to reflect on how it came to pass, what it has meant for the UK and the prospects for the future. The result, part of the EI Views series, is a social history from diverse perspectives of one of the most ground-breaking pieces of environmental legislation of its day.
The following is the individual perspective of Charles Hendry HonFEI
, who in 2008 was MP and Shadow Energy Minister and later Energy Minister in Coalition Governement.
Reflections on 2008
1. How significant was the passing of the Climate Change Act in your view, and why?
The passing of the Act was a critical moment in the climate change debate. It secured one of the largest majorities in Parliament and with cross-Party support. It sent a strong signal to the wider world that this was an area where the UK was determined to lead. It sent a clear message to investors that UK policies on energy and climate change, under any of the main political parties, would be relatively stable - whilst the individual policies might vary according to which Party was in power, the direction of travel was set. At the time, there was a great sense of excitement that such an important milestone had been achieved - people recognised it was a game-changing moment for the UK in the battle against climate change.
2. What were the factors that led to its overwhelming adoption by Parliament? Did parliamentarians fully understand its implications?
Parliament was overwhelmingly united in recognising that action was needed urgently to tackle climate change. The small amount of opposition was coming from people who did not accept the ‘climate science’ rather than people who questioned the timescale or the level of the ambition. Few Parliamentarians are scientists and most therefore were guided by what the leading academic figures were saying. The growing global consensus among scientists about climate change, its causes and the need for urgent, lasting action were crucial in delivering the levels of support which were achieved.
3. Did you have any misgivings at the time? Either about the level of the 2050 target or the framework or process designed to achieve it?
I have always been cautious about Parliament trying to lock future Parliaments into a given course of action, as each Parliament is sovereign and can undo previous Acts. That was one reason why the scale of the majority was so important, as it would make it more difficult to repeal the Act in the future. There was a recognition that Parliament was acting ahead of public opinion, which was less persuaded about the arguments than most MPs had been and so further action would be needed to deliver the public buy-in that was considered necessary. Whilst I accepted the timescale and target, I was sceptical that a goal set so far out would drive the action/change that was necessary, which is why the carbon budget periods and interim levels of ambition were so important. This was all happening at broadly the same time as the EU Renewable Energy Directive, which was being criticised in many quarters as being hopelessly ambitious for the UK.
The view from 2018
4. Marks out of ten please! Ten years on, has the CCA lived up to its ambition? Has decarbonisation to date progressed as you expected? Where have we been successful and where is progress disappointing?
In retrospect, the Act was important, but the individual policies to drive low-carbon investment have been more important. In 2010, when just 5% of electricity came from renewables, many people were saying for example that it would be impossible to deliver 30% of our electricity from renewables by 2020, but in fact we are broadly at that level already. Electricity Market Reform and other policies have brought much more investment into low-carbon projects than most considered feasible at the time the Climate Change Act was introduced. Technological change has also moved much faster than expected - bringing down the costs of offshore wind by more than half in just a few years. These changes have helped deliver more progress than was widely considered possible. The Act was important for guiding government decisions, but the pace of change has been driven by a host of decisions rather than the passing of the Act per se. Without the Act, I have no doubt the pace of progress would have been slower.
5. How strongly has the Climate Change Act influenced changes in behaviour and decision making by government, industry and consumers?
The Act has forced Governments to think about decarbonisation more than they would otherwise have done. During the early stages of the coalition government, this might well have happened anyway, but as consumers (and their MPs) became more concerned about prices and the anti-onshore wind sentiment grew in some quarters, the need to deliver on the Carbon Budgets continued to drive change. The Act has certainly made larger companies focus more on the steps they need to take to reduce their carbon emissions - the extent of this is often not fully recognised, but it has locked in good practice. Consumers’ actions, where these have happened, have I think been driven more by specific policies (on energy efficiency and micro-generartion) rather than by the Act per se.
6. To what extent has the UK maintained its position as a global climate leader since the Act was set?
The Act, together with specific policy decisions, have continued to give the UK a global leadership in the need for action about climate change. In particular, the decision to exit coal-fired generation completely had been world-leading and is in significant contrast to, say, Germany, which continues to invest in new coal. However, that lead has been particularly relevant in low-carbon electricity and less so in heat and transportation. We have also been helped by technological change, for example in the reducing costs and increasing efficiency of offshore wind, enabling the UK to become the undisputed global leader. The progress in other low-carbon technologies has been either slower (eg nuclear) or more patchy (eg CCUS).
Lessons for 2028 and beyond
7. As the carbon budgets tighten and the ‘lower-hanging fruit’ of easier emissions reduction measures run out, how can popular buy-in to the Climate Change Act’s goals be maintained?
We are now in an era where technology is as important as the energy resource in the low-carbon transition. Smart systems will enable the grid to accommodate significant extra amounts of renewable generation, without the need for building as much underused back-up capability that had been originally expected. This will enable the transition to continue, even once the 'low-hanging fruit' have been used. There will be a period where customers will need to take action - facilitated, for example, by time-of-use tariffs which will encourage time-shifting of electricity usage away from times of peak demand. This period will be relatively short-lived and the process will be increasingly automated, with electrical equipment in our homes and businesses consuming, storing or releasing electricity as the network demands. This will both smooth out peaks and troughs in supply and demand and also enable this to be done at the lowest cost to consumers.
8. Is the Climate Change Act consistent with the Paris Agreement? In the context of 1.5C, should we be increasing ambition to net-zero emissions by 2050? And what about accounting for emissions from sources with less clear jurisdiction (aviation, imports, etc.)?
The CCA is the backdrop for the range of policies which will help create a lower carbon future. It helped to kick-start a process which now has its own momentum. Progress is being made to decarbonise those sectors which were always assumed to be the most difficult to change - such as shipping and aviation. After a slow start, transportation and heat are moving forward. The Carbon Budgets also help to maintain the momentum. I don’t see a need to revisit the Act, but if the pace of change should slip or stall, then it would need to be revisited.
9. How could Brexit affect the UK’s continued progress towards its CCA targets?
I hope that the transition is sufficiently locked in, that Brexit will not impact it. Few of our decarbonisation actions are driven by the EU. They are mostly driven by domestically-set policies. The Contract for Difference FIT established through Electricity Market Reform should not be affected by Brexit and this is a major driver of investment in low carbon generation.
10. What would your advice be to other countries now thinking about legislation to meet similar climate change goals?
Be ambitious in setting targets but be sure to have a 'roadmap’ so progress can be measured along the way. Reassure the public that using renewable resources makes sense not just from the climate change perspective, but also for economic reasons and security of supply, reducing the dependence on imported energy.
Read more from our CCA at 10 Class of 2008