12 June 2019

Jill Rutter argues that this government’s biggest economic policy decision should not be made by a piece of secondary legislation with minimal discussion and debate.

Extinction Rebellion supporters have succeeded in raising interest in climate change – and now the “climate emergency” is rising up the political agenda.

The Government’s own Climate Change Committee (CCC) produced a report in May which suggested that “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would come at minimal cost to the economy. Now a prime minister in search of a legacy has swung into action, laying a statutory instrument to change the legally binding target set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act. Cue much self-congratulatory tweeting about UK leadership on climate change – an issue which did not loom large in Theresa May’s preceding 34 months as Prime Minister. That announcement was made, not to Parliament, but in a press release.

Setting a net zero target may be the right thing to do but it requires debate

Short of being keen to be remembered for something other than failing to deliver Brexit, the Prime Minister can point to good reasons for being more ambitious on climate change. But that does not mean it is right to make a major change without discussion – especially when there is disagreement over what that change would mean.

The CCC took one view on economic costs. The Treasury appears to have taken another, very different, view. This is a debate that needs to happen in public. We need to know what the Government thinks the costs – and benefits – of UK action will be. The briefest debates on an affirmative resolution – a motion requiring the endorsement of both Houses – under the Climate Change Act is hardly sufficient when hours are spent on minor Budget measures. 

The one thing Parliament has is time: it should have the opportunity to have a proper debate on the targets – and the choices needed to meet them.

Setting targets is not enough – a plan needs to be agreed

One reason that the Government can take this decision is that there is an easy political consensus on toughening long-term targets. But the CCC has already warned that the UK is not doing enough to meet its existing, less ambitious long-term target. Its assessment in June last year was positive about the fall in emissions to date but went on to say:

“We should celebrate this progress, but it masks a worrying trend in other sectors. In this report, we refer to the ‘uneven’ balance of emissions reduction, a polite way of drawing attention to government inaction in a host of areas. Our stalwarts, the power sector, have again propped up the 3% fall in overall emissions this year. This can’t go on.“

Assuming the Government has not addressed those issues, publication of the latest CCC assessment should be the first priority. The second should then be developing a credible plan to deliver more ambitious targets – and putting that plan before MPs – rather than just agreeing on where to set those targets. Parliament must be ready to sign up to the means as well as the ends – a failure to do so is one reason why legislated policy targets fail to deliver.

This is not a job for a zombie government

Before the 2010 election the Prime Minister was, as Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, trapped by Gordon Brown into supporting a child poverty target that was clearly undeliverable. It was as politically impossible to oppose eradicating child poverty then as it is to stand in the way of net zero targets now. 

The Prime Minister may be trying to trap a potentially more climate sceptic successor but her under-the-radar approach will mean they feel minimal commitment. And a 2050 target is easy to ignore with lots more pressing issues in mind. Instead of being ticked off on an outgoing PM’s legacy ‘to do list’, it would be much better if tackling climate change featured as a big issue in the Conservative Party leadership contest.

The new target might not matter because the Chancellor has a get-out clause

This government would not be the first to be cynical about legislating policy ambition. When Gordon Brown tried to put the 0.7% international aid target into legislation, he added what lawyers call an “ouster clause”. This meant that there would be no legal consequences if the Government missed the target.

The Treasury has always been concerned at the potential competitive price the UK might pay for climate leadership – noting that UK emissions make up a small fraction of the global problem. It seems to have secured a get-out clause which means that the target will be reviewed in five years if other countries have not followed the UK’s lead, but by that time a government committed to net zero should have set policy on a course to reach that end point.

The Treasury’s caution is not a reason, in itself, to avoid action. But a prime minister on the way out is asking the country to take a big step going forward. It is essential that politicians and the public only take it in full awareness of what it means.


A few points to note:
1) The report published in May by the CCC did not emerge from nowhere. It was produced in response to a *formal* request from the SoS, made in October 2018 under a specific provision of the Act. (At that point, of course, the political circumstances were rather different - not only in relation to the progress in the EU Withdrawal Agreement and the PM's tenure, but also in relation to the scale of public demonstrations such as the international school student strikes and the UK Extinction Rebellion protests).
2) The power to substantially amend the target (either in terms of magnitude or due date) was always a central part of the Act; any objection to the *principle* of the current proposal could have been raised by Parliament in 2008.
3) The *sole* substantive amendment to be made to the Act under the draft SI currently before Parliament is to substitute "100%" for "80%" in the relevant clause of the 2008 Act.
4) The promised 5-year review would take place under the same provision of the Act as was invoked in the October 2018 formal request from the SoS - it does not involve any new powers.


I am not questioning whether govt has the powers .. they clearly do ... but this is a huge announcement from a last gasp PM -- and doing it in this way means we do not have a proper debate on what it means.. therefore down the line easier to renege on the commitment..

I was in Defra when the climate change act went through - and it was notable how relatively cavalier that govt was about upping the target from 60 to 80% - as long as it meant no difficult short-term decisions....