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CCA at 10 - 'The environmental campaigner' - Views from Craig Bennett

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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 Craig Bennett, who in 2008 was Director of the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change and is now Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth.

Reflections on 2008

1. How significant was the passing of the Climate Change Act in your view, and why? 

It was very significant and a historic moment, not just because of what the Act does, but also because it benefited from extraordinary cross-party support, and was a piece of legislation put on the political agenda and campaigned for by “the people”, as represented by civil society.

After many years of feeling a sense of hopelessness about climate change, the passing of The Climate Change Act in 2008 – for a brief moment - gave concerned scientists, campaigners, business leaders and policy makers a sense that it might just be possible to tackle climate change in a rationale and planned way rather than only after the chaos has hit.

Furthermore, The Climate Change Act has now been copied, at least in part, by many other countries around the world. More than 70 countries have adopted climate legislation since 2008.

2. What were the factors that led to its overwhelming adoption by Parliament? Did parliamentarians fully understand its implications?

I would suggest there were at least four factors that were critical to its overwhelming adoption by Parliament, all of which stand out as significant a decade later.

Firstly, and most importantly, civil society came together to mobilise in support of the campaign. While the concept of The Climate Change Act was originally conceived of by Friends of the Earth who then launched The Big Ask Campaign to build support for it, it wasn’t long before there was a very broad coalition of organisations mobilising behind it. And this involved a lot more than just adding names to email petitions; tens of thousands of people met their MPs face to face, in Parliament and in constituency surgeries, to call for a climate change act. MPs felt this groundswell, and the vast majority reacted accordingly.

Secondly, Friends of the Earth took a strategic decision to ‘win over’ the then Conservative opposition first. At that time, the Conservatives had been out of power for a decade and their new leader, David Cameron, knew that demonstrating support for environmental issues would help to “detoxify” the Tory brand. (He had, after all, just updated the Conservative Party logo by replacing the traditional red, white and blue flaming ‘torch’ with a blue and green tree). David Cameron was invited to speak at the Friends of the Earth press conference launching the campaign and he pledged his party’s support. The Labour Government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had already made very welcome statements about the need to act on climate change, but they were probably fearful that the Conservative opposition might try and brand them as “anti-business”. By locking in Conservative support first, the campaign became much easier than it would otherwise have been.

Thirdly, in 2006, a small but very significant section of the business community came out in support of “clear and long-term regulatory frameworks” to address the threat of climate change - most notably - The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change which included some of Britain’s largest companies. At the time, this was a deliberate attempt by a small handful of business leaders to offer an alternative narrative to Sir Digby Jones, the then Director General of the CBI who had previously been critical of the Blair Government for introducing “overregulation” and “red tape” and “sacrificing competitiveness on the alter of green credentials”. 

Fourthly, this was a time, before the financial crisis and the emergence of ‘populism’, when science and evidence, logic and reason mattered far more in policy making than it does today.

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

At Friends of the Earth, we felt sure that the 2050 target would have to be strengthened at some point in the future but it was the best we could get at the time. We would have preferred annual emission reduction targets because we were concerned that five year carbon budgets would stretch beyond General Election cycles and allow politicians off the hook. But, in other ways we understood the rationale behind five year budgets (although we also pushed for three year budgets).

We were very worried about leaving emissions from aviation and shipping out of the Act, and these remain as two highly polluting industry sectors that are not making nearly enough of a contribution to tackle climate change. 

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?

I would say 7.

The Climate Change Act has proved to be a very effective piece of legislation but we all knew that it was only ever going to provide a framework; many more policies and initiatives would be required to deliver the actual emission reductions.

The Act has, on the whole, been very effective but we’ve been desperately let down by failure of politicians since to introduce and maintain policy measures commensurate with the stated intention of the Act.

The UK story around renewable energy, for example, has been a frustrating one of success and disappointment in equal measure. To start with, there was great success with a very significant scaling up of investment in low carbon technologies. The Low Carbon Transition Plan published by the Labour Government created some strong momentum, and then welcome commitments were made around scaling up off-shore wind during the Coalition Government.

But in the summer of 2015, the Conservative Government took a sledgehammer to much of the energy policy that had been developed over the previous seven years, including the scrapping of zero carbon homes and energy efficiency policies, drastic cuts to Feed In Tariffs, and essentially stopping the deployment of new on-shore wind. It was around this time that many in the sustainability community feared The Climate Change Act might be at risk.

Fortunately, we still have The Climate Change Act, but tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in low-carbon industries over the last three years, and it is the smaller, entrepreneurial low-carbon ‘start-ups’ that have suffered most.

Furthermore, proposals for fracking and a third runway at Heathrow are now taking us in precisely the wrong direction.

Although Government rhetoric and diplomacy around climate change remains strong, domestic climate policy is now well and truly off track and, on current plans, the UK is unlikely to achieve the emission reductions required to meet the Fourth and Fifth Carbon Budgets. 

5. How strongly has the Climate Change Act influenced changes in behaviour and decision making by government, industry and consumers?

The Climate Change Act has provided business with the long term confidence to scale up investment in low carbon technologies, but this has – at times – been eroded by a chaotic chopping and changing of policy mechanisms in specific policy areas; such as around energy efficiency and renewables.

Changes in behaviour are rarely driven by legislation in and of itself. But public awareness of climate change has increased, and there is evidence that it is at least one of the reasons why some behaviours are starting to change, such as around car ownership and diet.

If and when our political leaders provide clear and consistent leadership on the need to tackle climate change, rather than mixed and contradictory messages and policies, then we will see far faster changes in behaviour. 

6. To what extent has the UK maintained its position as a global climate leader since the Act was set?

The UK has remained a global climate leader in its diplomatic efforts, but this has not been matched by a commensurate level of action on the domestic policy agenda.

In recent years, the UK Government’s support for fracking and a third runway at Heathrow have been cited by policy makers and commentators in other countries as evidence that the UK is not the climate leader it once was. 

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?

Opinion polls suggest public support for bold action on climate change is much stronger than many ‘experts’ in the field often assume, and certainly a lot stronger than amongst many parliamentarians. 

I passionately believe that de-carbonisation could be a lot easier, cheaper and faster than many people assume. Renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind (even offshore wind) have fallen in cost and been deployed a far higher levels over the last decade than even the most optimistic predictions thought possible, for example. Similarly, the uptake of electric vehicles will become faster and faster and bigger and bigger, rather like a snowball rolling down a snow-covered hill, because as the technology becomes mainstream it will become ever easier to overcome technological and cultural inertia.

So, I’m not sure that the “low hanging fruit” analogy is always right. In some circumstances, the first steps towards technological change may prove to be the hardest, and we may have taken them already. 

But, what we need is for politicians to present clear and consistent messages and policy measure to maintain and build momentum, rather than chopping and changing according to newspaper headlines – as the Conservative Government did when it ripped up several successful policy measures in 2015.

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 evidence is now very clear that The Climate Change Act should be amended to make sure it is in line with The Paris Agreement, and this means increasing its ambition to achieve net-zero well before 2050 (given the UK’s historic responsibility for climate change). 

Much greater attention, effort and political leadership needs to be demonstrated around reducing emissions from aviation and shipping. 

If the UK considers itself to be a “climate leader”, rather than allowing a third runway at Heathrow it could be adopting the same policy as that of the Norwegian Government which is required all domestic flights to be electric by 2030.  

9. How could Brexit affect the UK’s continued progress towards its CCA targets?

Friends of the Earth is very concerned about the impact that Brexit will likely have UK action on climate change. 

International cooperation is fundamental to tackling international environmental problems. The whole reason that the European Union has developed common regulatory frameworks is because otherwise, in a single economic market, it would be very easy for individual countries to otherwise “undercut” each other, precipitating a regulatory “race to the bottom”. 

Conversely, common EU regulatory frameworks have enabled the 28 member states of the European Union to take bolder collective action than they would be acting alone when worried about their individual “competitiveness”. 

One of the leading calls by those arguing for Brexit during the 2016 EU referendum was the need to “cut EU red tape” - and when making this call many Brexiteers were implicitly thinking of EU energy and energy efficiency policies, amongst others. Make no mistake, if and when Britain leaves the EU, these same Brexiteers will be calling for a “bonfire of environmental regulations”. 

What makes it all the galling is that they will be using the weakened state of the UK economy, weakened by Brexit, to make this argument.  

10. What would your advice be to other countries now thinking about legislation to meet similar climate change goals?

Whenever action on climate change is proposed, the debate all too often focusses on the “costs” of that action. 

But the reality is very clear; the costs of inaction on climate change are far greater. 

Even if climate change wasn’t happening, we would need to invest trillions of dollars in upgrading our energy and transport infrastructure this century, partly to meet the energy, transport and other demands of billions of people, and partly to deal with other very pressing issues such as the 1 in 8 premature deaths globally caused by air pollution (according to the World Health Organisation). 

So, it’s not really a question of “costs” associated with climate action. It’s a question firstly of “choice”; do we choose to invest trillions of dollars in old, polluting infrastructure, or do we choose to move on, and invest in clean infrastructure that brings a myriad of other benefits. 

And, where it is a question of “costs”, that should be focussed on the true costs of inaction, which is far greater than the cost on action. 

Read more from our CCA at 10 Class of 2008

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Keywords: Energy -

Subjects: Climate change

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