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CCA at 10 - 'The scientific adviser' - Views from Jim Skea CBE FEI

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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 Jim Skea CBE FEI, who in 2008 and now was a founding member of the Committee on Climate Change and also on the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Reflections on 2008

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

It was a watershed. The fact that many organisations (including the Energy Institute!) are marking the tenth anniversary of the Act is a clear sign that it has had an impact. At the time, it was striking because of its ambition, at least 80 per cent reduction in emissions, the binding legal framework and the role of an independent Committee. Many other countries have looked at the UK Climate Change Act and have started to adapt it to fit their own national circumstances. Visiting New Zealand a few months ago, I had a long grilling from civil servants trying to understand just how an independent committee interacted with an elected government. 

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

These were the days when hugging a husky was a fashionable hobby for the political class. I am slightly cynical about this one. The Lib Dems truly believed in it, the official opposition did their job and opposed, and there was an awkward squad of government backbenchers who carried it over the line. Worthwhile remembering that the government of the day was not inclined to have an independent committee. Before the Act was passed, an “office of climate change” was established inside government that would have done the job that the Committee on Climate Change now does. The planets all lined up for the Act in 2008. I’m not sure the same would have happened in 2018.

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?

The process that the Act established was a unique feature and, I suspect, will be the most enduring feature. The amount of enthusiasm that the Act, and the role of the Committee on Climate Change, engendered was extraordinary. I am told that hundreds applied for the first few places on the Committee. I was incredibly chuffed to be short-listed and astounded to be selected. Any misgivings might have been about the ambition of the 2050 target. We did figure out how it could be done, but it was ambitious. An 80% reduction leaves 20% of emissions untouched, a 60% target leaves 40% untouched. So, it was really twice as ambitious as the previous target recommended by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. 

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? 

Seven. Decarbonisation has progressed faster than expected but it has been unbalanced. Very successful in the power sector but little progress elsewhere - even backwards in the case of investment in household energy efficiency. In retrospect, the second and the carbon budgets weren’t ambitious enough. They are being met all too easily which means that government can take its foot off the accelerator. The unanticipated impact of the 2008 financial crisis on emissions, and the Alice in Wonderland carbon accountancy associated with emissions trading, have also undermined momentum. The Scots are doing the right thing in moving to real emissions rather than adjusting for trading in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. 

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

Massive impact on government. The fact that the 2050 target and the carbon budgets are legally binding really focuses minds in the civil service. There are rumours that the Secretariat of the Committee on Climate Change is vastly outnumbered by the civil servants whose job it is to shadow them. The effect on industry and consumers has been more indirect. The electricity industry has been profoundly affected, but mainly because of the Electricity Market Reform that partly flowed from the Act. I think of the Act has having a cascading influence. Government responds to the carbon budgets, but industry and consumers respond to the specific measures that government puts in place to make sure the carbon budgets are met.  

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

Back in 2008, the UK was genuinely world-leading in terms of both ambition and the Climate Change Act framework. In 2018, I’d say the UK was running with the pack rather than ahead of it. Having an independent Committee resourced the way it is, is still quite rare internationally. And the exit from coal, the most polluting fossil, is pretty unique. But other countries can be much more ambitious in terms of energy efficiency. And some, such as Norway, are more ambitious in setting targets for phasing out petrol and diesel cars. The Paris Agreement has upped the ante internationally and the UK is starting to blend in. But in terms of a governance framework, the Climate Change Act is certainly still world leading.

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 do run a risk that climate policy will run into the buffers in the mid-2020s when we get to the much more ambitious 4th carbon budget. We may have exhausted most opportunities in the electricity sector and there will be no choice but to turn to home heating, electric vehicles, new industrial processes, agriculture and other land-based mitigation measures. The next steps could affect people’s lives more directly. Electric vehicles could actually be popular for other reasons (quieter, smoother, good acceleration, conventional emissions eliminated). Putting hot water tanks back into houses to accommodate heat pumps could be another matter. The impacts of climate change will be ever more evident in the coming decades. Registering the connection between the way we live and climate impacts will be critical. 

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.)?  

Since the Committee is likely to be asked to answer this question in a formal way, I will attempt to slide gracefully round this one! The available scientific literature is very clear that limiting global warming to “well below 2 degrees while pursuing efforts towards 1.5” requires carbon sinks to balance carbon emission at the global level sometime around mid-century. On pure equity grounds, it would be hard to see why the UK, as a developed country, should not emulate that global ambition. If we wanted to take account of carbon embodied in imports, we’d need to get to net zero all the sooner. The feasibility question comes into play here. How quickly could we make the radical changes demanded by a net zero target? Would other countries be prepared to do a deal with us to share their emissions reductions? The Paris Agreement allows for that, but it would mean us paying others to carry some of our burden.

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

In purely legal terms, Brexit doesn’t affect UK climate policy directly. The Climate Change Act has “made in Britain” stamped all over it. But you have to be concerned as to how the mechanisms by which we deliver our ambition could be affected by Brexit.  Will manufacturers of low emission vehicles or wind turbine blades want to invest in the UK? Will consumers be willing to pay to import energy efficient technologies as sterling dips in value?  Will we pull in the skilled labour we need from Europe, one of the most energy efficient parts of the world? If practical policies and their implementation face headwinds, will that weaken the resolve to set and meet ambitious targets?  

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

Look carefully at the governance framework. It directly addresses the time consistency problem - that elected governments struggle to set policies that have long-term intergenerational implications. The long-term target, the budgets running 15 years ahead, and the independent advice and scrutiny really provide a solid and enduring base for climate policy. Political cultures vary and this may not work everywhere, but it’s worth a look. And look for ways of doing things better. Adjusting the “net carbon account” for the trading and hoarding of emissions allowances has had perverse outcomes. Also take a look at how the Scottish Climate Change Act has operated. Their annual targets are harder to meet consistently, but it keeps climate change in the public eye every year rather than once every five years when a new budget is set. The Scots are willing to set more aspirational targets and be forgiving if they are not met (as long as efforts have been made!). That approach may work better for some countries - there’s no right answer.

Read more from our CCA at 10 Class of 2008

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Keywords: Energy -

Subjects: Climate change

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