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 Richard Black, who in 2008 was BBC Environment Correspondent and is now Director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU).
Reflections on 2008
1. How significant was the passing of the Climate Change Act in your view, and why?
It’s hard to exaggerate the significance of the UK’s Climate Change Act. The first country anywhere in the world to set an emissions reduction target in law - establishment of an independent advisor and scrutineer - successive carbon budgets - these lie at the heart of the Act, and are the tools that have made the UK’s decarbonisation path smoother and more logical than in many other nations. The Act’s success can now be seen in the fact that other countries have modelled their own legislation on it, and more are doing so now. Even more impressive, perhaps, is the huge support that it commanded and still commands across Parliament and across society. Whether as journalists we truly appreciated and reflected its significance at the time, I’m not sure - I think it’s much easier to appreciate now that we have 10 years of real-world experience to look back on, and can see not only the Act’s good sense but also its effectiveness.
2. What were the factors that led to its overwhelming adoption by Parliament? Did parliamentarians fully understand its implications?
The proposition of the Climate Change Act was absolutely logical, and that does sometimes have an impact in Westminster! But the main factor behind the overwhelming support in Parliament was, as always, that the politics were right. We had a Conservative opposition that David Cameron was trying to ‘detoxify’, and a Labour government that would not let itself be ‘out-greened’ by the Conservatives. Visible and audible support outside Parliament clearly helped as well, with everyone from the CBI to the Women’s Institute backing the Act - a truly cross-societal movement, politically savvy and consensual. One has to remember also that this was the period before the theft of emails from the University of East Anglia and the massive furore that contrarians created from it, also before creation of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Of course there was some pushback, but it was rather feeble; and from the journalist’s point of view, the Act, especially coming so soon after the Stern Review and the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, wasn’t really that controversial at all.
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 suppose the main misgiving I had at the time was whether successive governments would actually bother to meet carbon budgets, because when you looked at the ‘legally-binding’ element, there weren’t really any sanctions. And this was discussed at the time. There was also the possibility that a Conservative leader other than David Cameron might seek to repeal it. Proponents of the Act said that both the good politics of delivering on carbon budgets and the threat of judicial review were teeth enough to get carbon budgets delivered. So far, they have been proven correct. And attempts to get it repealed have been remarkably impotent.
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?
You cannot seriously look at the Climate Change Act and conclude it has been anything other than a huge success. Structurally and functionally it works. The UK has the best record in the G7 in terms of decarbonising while growing the economy, and it’s the only G7 nation with a Climate Change Act: not a coincidence. Although one has to acknowledge that the 2008/9 financial crisis did cause emissions to fall, at least temporarily. If there is a problem with the Act it is that its influence is felt strongly in BEIS but less so elsewhere. Hence it has proven possible for Secretaries of State such as Chris Grayling at Transport and Sajid Javid at Communities [now Home Secretary] simply to ignore it. Decarbonisation has been really good in the power sector, not bad in waste and industry, and terrible in transport and agriculture. And that is a concern as decarbonisation needs now to go beyond the energy sector, and to do so now.
5. How strongly has the Climate Change Act influenced changes in behaviour and decision making by government, industry and consumers?
The Act has definitely influenced government decision-making, on energy but also on issues such as soil quality and diplomacy on climate change. On the latter, the Act is a calling-card. For businesses, the scenarios mapped out by the CCC indicate where government policy is heading, and obviously business appreciates nothing more than predictability. Whether it’s had an impact on consumers’ decision-making is less clear – one suspects not, although government initiatives stimulated by the Act, such as smart meters, may do.
6. To what extent has the UK maintained its position as a global climate leader since the Act was set?
The UK is undeniably a global leader if you look at the rate of decarbonisation, heading the PwC rankings for the G20. The same is true for diplomacy, where the UK continues to punch above its weight. Where it’s failing is in some policy areas, notably energy efficiency where standards are already way behind some other European countries and falling further behind. The Act itself is also due an overhaul in the light of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5ºC, because the science is now clear that at 80% emissions cut by 2050 isn’t adequate. Other countries have identified this and have used the best of the UK’s Act to develop their own while including science-based net zero targets. So the UK isn’t anymore in the absolute lead, but still very much in the vanguard.
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?
Public opinion backs both the Act and the Paris Agreement - that we know from surveys. Public support for clean energy and cutting energy waste is even higher - only 2% of the population ‘strongly opposes’ onshore wind energy, for example, despite elements of the political and media elite telling us for 10 years that we hate it. So in one sense, job done. It seems hard to believe that the public will oppose moves towards low-carbon steel, chemicals, aluminium… why would they? In fact, one suspects that support might well increase as impacts of climate change, particularly the increase it’s driving in extreme weather events, become clearer.
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.)?
Technically, the Act is consistent with the Paris Agreement because the long-term emissions-cutting target is ‘at least 80%’. Also, the Agreement commits countries to net zero emissions ‘in the second half of the century’, which is also consistent with the Act. But we need to get real here. The UK pledged in the Paris Agreement to ‘make efforts’ to keep global warming to 1.5ºC. As a developed nation it is committed to leading. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluding that the world needs to reach net zero carbon emissions around mid-century, a UK net zero target ahead of 2050 is really the only game in town. Even here the Act’s design stands the test of time because the Secretary of State can amend the 80% target if science and the international policy landscape change – which they have. At some point international aviation emissions also need to be brought fully into the Act, which will be uncomfortable given Heathrow Airport expansion plans. I don’t think there is a case however for moving to accounting based on ‘exported’ emissions – it’s fiendishly difficult, there’s no international mechanism, and anyway it’s becoming progressively less important as other countries also decarbonise.
9. How could Brexit affect the UK’s continued progress towards its CCA targets?
Brexit’s impact? That’s a thorny one, and more guesswork than solid ground. In a strict sense Brexit makes no difference because the CCA and its targets are entirely national. However, there are practical questions such as the future of carbon pricing and UK integration with the EU internal energy market to which we don’t have answers. Business really needed answers a year ago, because uncertainty delays investment and makes it more expensive. Product standards are another issue because EU regulations have cut energy waste effectively, so if the UK abandons them, we can expect an upwards pressure on emissions as well as energy bills.
10. What would your advice be to other countries now thinking about legislation to meet similar climate change goals?
Some other countries have developed their own climate change legislation based on the UK’s Act, which is a massive compliment. Some have found ways of going further – for example, going to annual rather than five-yearly carbon budgets, and putting duties on all ministries to cut emissions. The question then is really what can the UK learn from these countries? There’s no doubt that the UK’s future decarbonisation would be more secure if the Departments for Transport and Housing were obliged to cut emissions – perhaps with an ‘emissions chancellor’ vetting departmental plans as the financial Chancellor does for spending. But the overall message to other countries from 10 years of the UK Climate Change Act is: just do it!
Read more from our CCA at 10 Class of 2008