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 Ed Mayo, who in 2008 was Chief Executive of staturory watchdog Consumer Focus and is now Secretary General of Co-operatives UK.
Reflections on 2008
1. How significant was the passing of the Climate Change Act in your view, and why?
The act was the Great Reform Act of the climate era. There were and are and will be a multitude of initiatives and actions around climate change, but this was the one that will make the school history e-books of the future, because it was an innovation in democracy, trying to shape how successive governments and elected leaders could act in line with climate science over time.
2. What were the factors that led to its overwhelming adoption by Parliament? Did parliamentarians fully understand its implications?
One great achievement has been to win consent for action across political parties. The compelling logic of the Act, coupled with the political leadership behind it engendered near universal support. Did MPs understand what it would mean? In a sense, no, but that was the beauty of it, the Act introduced a way for future parliamentarians to know what action in line with science would mean. It was a commitment device on behalf of the UK policy.
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?
From a consumer perspective, there was and still is a complete absence of sensible and credible guidance on climate adaptation. The Act helped, creating a way of curating expert knowledge, but it didn’t fill this gap. There is no authoritative and effective source of consumer education. The mitigation agenda has the moral high ground, but we also need open information and guidance on the individual and collective action for adapting to 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?
8/10. Judged by its own frame of reference, the Act has been successful in prompting appropriate consideration of the carbon emissions envelope we need to operate in. Judged by the planetary emergency we face, the score would reverse to 2/10 because our underlying trajectory has not significantly changed and there is no teeth to the Act, no true accountability for decisions that prove to be out of line with the advice that is given.
5. How strongly has the Climate Change Act influenced changes in behaviour and decision making by government, industry and consumers?
The Act has influenced political debate, and as a model, it has been copied. But for consumers, authoritative information aimed at decision makers is not enough. Home energy efficiency and an end to fuel poverty for example remains a distant dream. There remains a need that is unmet by the architecture of the Act, which is to inform and engage citizens around the challenges of climate change.
6. To what extent has the UK maintained its position as a global climate leader since the Act was set?
I see no signs that the UK as a whole can claim to be a world-leader in terms of a shift to a green economy, and if the Act represents the laurels, then let’s put that aside, drop the hype and explore objectively where we can learn from others. At home, the commitment of Wales and Scotland to sustainable development for example has been more extensive than that of Westminster.
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 can tighten up the nuts and bolts, on targets and sanctions, but the real challenge is not the advice but the action. The Climate Change Committee is a backroom player when what we need, to command policy and political attention, is for it to be centre stage. In terms of public support, I am encouraged by the emergence of community energy, decentralised, co-operative and engaging people directly in the complex challenges of climate change. There are now 1,250 renewable energy co-ops across Europe, involving one million people as member owners and influencing most recently the Renewables Directive at EU level.
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.)?
It is not clear that the Paris Agreement is entirely consistent with itself, but it shares with the Act an astute attempt to ratchet up policy action to the levels required over time. It makes sense both to reflect the Paris goals of net zero emissions, temperature targets and to look at the true footprint of the UK worldwide.
9. How could Brexit affect the UK’s continued progress towards its CCA targets?
Europe has been a positive champion for climate action and wider sustainable development goals. It is all still up in the air, because so much is unknown, particularly of the long term effects, but if Brexit leads the UK to distance itself from the European consensus on other matters, then climate policy too could come into question.
10. What would your advice be to other countries now thinking about legislation to meet similar climate change goals?
Use the Act as a good model to influence national policy, but design and plug in new policy and institutional tools alongside it to fill the gaps on the challenges of sustainable consumption and a green economy. Then build on the model by thinking about how the voice of future generations and the interests of other species can play a part in today’s democracy.
Read more from our CCA at 10 Class of 2008