In hard economic times there is always a temptation for politicians to prioritise short-term economic growth and electoral success above cutting carbon pollution, despite recognition that man-made climate change is one of the most important issues facing humanity – and tackling it can bring economic rewards. This demonstrates that politics matter in environmental protection, often more so than science. It also shows the importance of the Climate Change Act, which today marks its fifth anniversary.
The Climate Change Act was given Royal Assent in 2008, when it became the first national law committing to legally binding annual cuts in greenhouse gases. But the story starts back in the early Noughties, with a Labour government way off-track from meeting its manifesto promises to cut the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Friends of the Earth’s flagship campaign The Big Ask was a bold attempt to build on growing public and scientific concern about climate change, to make it legally and politically difficult for politicians to ignore their commitments. It was launched in May 2005, fronted by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and was thereafter supported by hundreds of thousands of people.
The campaign rested on one scientific truth: it is the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted that matters, not long-term reduction targets. Something that leading climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson continues to reiterate now.
It was this scientific truth that found its way into the Climate Change Act in the form of carbon budgets – forcing the UK to limit its carbon pollution within five year periods. [UK international aviation remains outside the carbon budgets.] There are some people today who advocate weakening the fourth carbon budget, which limits the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions between 2023 and 2027. But the Government’s statutory advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, have said in no uncertain terms that there is no scientific or legal basis to do so, and if anything carbon pollution limits should be made tougher.
The carbon budgets within the Climate Change Act are not however set by scientists. They are informed by science but derived from political agreements.
Two degrees of global warming is commonly regarded as the most we can allow if we are going to avoid dangerous climate change. But this is a political decision rather than a scientific one, first agreed by EU Heads of State in 1996 with no real public debate, and in Friends of the Earth’s view, too weak a target (pdf).
Science does not tell us how a global carbon budget consistent with this target should be shared out between nations. This is also a political – and an ethical – decision, and as Kevin Anderson demonstrates, one that is consistently skewed in favour of rich countries.
However, science had a significant role in inspiring The Big Ask campaign for a Climate Change Act. Scientific warnings galvanised environment and development groups to campaign together to make it happen.
Science also informs the world about limits to carbon emissions for particular temperature rises. For example the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now identified a global carbon budget (pdf) consistent with avoiding two degrees warming which, if implemented, would mean most of our proven fossil fuel reserves shouldn’t be burnt.
And science informs on the likely impacts of climate change, for example on the likelihood of more frequent typhoons such as just seen in The Philippines – prompting David Cameron to reiterate the need to take climate change seriously. In 2014 the IPCC will release its updated understanding of climate impacts by publishing the findings from IPCC Working Group 2.
But ultimately it is the politics that will decide whether the world avoids two degrees of global warming or not. Politicians will choose to continue to lavish fossil fuels with subsidies or not. They will decide how much support developing countries should get to develop a low-carbon economy as opposed to one based on dirty energy.
What the Climate Change Act does is make it politically difficult for the UK’s government of the day to exceed the UK’s carbon budgets, and it makes it extremely difficult for any government to undo these budgets once set.
This is deliberate. When David Cameron campaigned for the Climate Change Act he said binding targets were needed to take politics out of carbon reductions. And indeed, as political short-termism now takes hold over fracking and energy bills, he himself needs binding targets more than ever.
The UK Climate Change Act has so far successfully constrained UK politicians who want to ignore the reality of climate change. It has injected a degree of surety for long-term low-carbon investors.
But it only covers the UK. The world desperately needs its own Climate Change Act and to agree a global carbon budget, something we arefighting for internationally in the run up to the Paris UNFCCC negotiation in 2015.
Achieving this is a massive political fight will make The Big Ask campaign seem like a stroll in the park. But to stop dangerous climate change it’s a fight we must win.
Mike Childs is Head of Policy, Research and Science at Friends of the Earth. This is first in a short series of posts on the Political Science blog, marking the 5th anniversary of the Climate Change Act.
The Climate Act’s target for 2050:
“It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline.”
It is the duty of the Secretary of State —
(a) to set for each succeeding period of five years beginning with the period 2008-2012 (“budgetary periods”) an amount for the net UK carbon account (the “carbon budget”), and
(b) to ensure that the net UK carbon account for a budgetary period does not exceed the carbon budget.
Government fails to properly include international aviation in UK carbon budgets – decision put off till 2016