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CCA at 10 - 'The civil servant' - Views from Simon Virley CB 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 Simon Virley CB FEI, who in 2008 was Director in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and is now Partner and UK Head of Energy at KPMG.

Reflections on 2008

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

The CCA was hugely significant. It helped set the direction for energy and climate policy in the UK thereafter and still guides it today.  Without it, the UK would not have achieved what it has done in terms of decarbonisation in my view. 

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

The growing scientific evidence about the need for action on climate change was an important factor and a feeling that the UK needed to take a leadership role. It is an interesting thought experiment to think about whether it would have passed with so little opposition post the financial crash. The timing worked in political terms. 

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 think it is fair to say that the destination was chosen (an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050) without any clear road map on how to get there. That has come later through the work of the CCC and others. But sometimes that is the role of political leadership. It would have helped if politicians (of all parties) had been more willing to be honest with the public about the costs (and benefits) involved in making this transition.  

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 give it an 8.5! It has provided a very clear set of targets to achieve and a process and governance that has helped high-quality policy-making. The OECD has said that the UK has been the most successful country in the world in terms of decarbonising its economy whilst continuing to grow over the past 10 years. We have also made great strides in renewable energy, with 30% of our power coming from renewables from barely 5% a decade ago. On the other hand, the CCA does focus most of the political attention (and resources) into prevention, when we need to also be thinking more about adaptation (given what the UK does alone will only have a minor impact on global climate change). It also does not include any conditionality related to either the costs of the transition, or progress made by other countries.  

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

The CCA had a major impact on decision-making in Government through the time I was heavily involved (2008-15). It is difficult to avoid commitments once they are legally-binding and you know that if you don’t follow them then a Green NGO will probably mount a legal challenge against the Government. The process of advice from the CCC also worked well in my opinion adding evidence and rigour to the decision-making process; but also providing a way of channelling stakeholder views before decisions had to be reached eg on the level of the next carbon budget. 

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

For most of the past 10 years the UK has been a global leader in this field. The OECD confirmed this recently in their assessment of progress with decarbonisation. The UK’s leadership position enabled it to have significant influence through the COP negotiations, culminating in the Paris Accord in 2015. Many other countries have sought to replicate the model the CCA brought in. However, looking ahead, there are significant challenges if the UK is to stay on course to meet its carbon budgets and maintain a leading position in terms of decarbonisation. 

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?

I think we have to harness the power of new technology to make our energy system ‘smarter’ and offer consumers the prospect of cheaper, greener and more reliable energy supplies. We will only succeed if we can meet all of those objectives and secure the benefits in terms of jobs and investment of the UK being a world leader in some of these new technologies. We must also continue to engage internationally to maintain progress against the Paris Accord commitments. If the UK is seen to be ‘going it alone’, and imposing disproportionate costs on our economy, then public support will quickly dissipate.   

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 UK carbon budgets are broadly consistent with the Paris Agreement targets. The UK has shown great leadership on climate policy over the past decade and the 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 will be very difficult to achieve as it is. Any commitment beyond this towards ‘net zero’ should, in my view, relate to a later date and be done on a multilateral, not a unilateral basis.  

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

We have to maintain our co-operation and dialogue with our European partners on climate change, despite Brexit. We should look to stay in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and the Internal Energy Market if at all possible. The UK played a central role in helping establish both the IEM and the EU ETS and it would be better for both the UK and the EU if the UK was part of those arrangements going forwards.  

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

My advice would be that this is a good piece of legislation that establishes a robust framework for GHG emissions reduction. No doubt there are improvements that can be made to it and it needs to be tailored for particular country circumstances, but it is definitely worth copying! 

Read more from our CCA at 10 Class of 2008

Online Resource details

Keywords: Energy -

Subjects: Climate change

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