10 years of the Climate Act: so much for the easy stuff

This week we mark 10 years since the landmark act, and see how much further we have to go

It’s ten years this week since the UK passed a law the likes of which the world had never seen: the 2008 Climate Change Act. The Act commits the UK government by law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what an achievement it was: only five MPs voted against it. A decade on, we can look to the UK’s ever-increasing chunk of energy from renewables as just one of the ways in which it’s made a difference. And there have definitely been times – particularly during the dark days of the last government’s war on so-called green crap” – when its very existence has helped keep the UK on the relative straight and narrow.

But let’s be really honest: when it comes to cutting down on our carbon emissions, we’ve only just started. And it hasn’t been at all easy. Quite a lot of what’s happened over the last decade has been squabbled over the whole way. Think of the gobby but influential minority that have effectively ensured a ban on onshore wind in England. Or the austerity-merry ministers and mindsets that have slowly hacked at the ankles of the UK’s programmes of insulating homes. 

The cognitive dissonance is sadly undimmed. The government still talks a good game on rapidly cutting emissions, while ushering in a new fossil fuel industry or feverishly expanding aviation. Just a few days before today’s anniversary, the government was proudly championing the opening of new flights between Cornwall and London. 

Last month Philip Hammond presented his Budget. His speech contained not a single mention of climate change, and the fine print of the underlying documents didn’t do much better. This got lots of people into a tizzy but it’s hardly an isolated incident. I’ve been reacting to government budgets for pretty much all of the last decade and, the odd green trinket aside, my general reaction has always been the same. For all its hyperbole – and our government is a genuine world-leader in talking a good game – delivering an economy hardwired to act ambitiously and radically on climate change simply isn’t what the Treasury, or its boss, thinks its job is. 

The Treasury has never really got’ climate change; neither, by extension, has the government. Under George Osborne, the Treasury even had a specific job to not let UN climate talks cause too much damage to the UK economy. For every incentive grudgingly given to the green economy, it has done something unhelpful somewhere else – like consistently cut tax for North Sea oil.

So that’s where we are. And the much harder stuff – the proper job of really unshackling our economy from the century or more of its intertwining with fossil fuels – has to start now. 

Airplane taking off runway
Image: dsleeter_​2000 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The New Economics Foundation has always understood that climate change isn’t simply an externality’ to the global economy. While decarbonising is indeed a technical challenge, our entire economy has grown up on the back of fossil fuels. As Simon Pirani argues in his compelling new history of fossil fuels, it is not possible to detach thinking about how to end the fossil fuel age from thinking about how our economy works. The world has about ten years to cut emissions by about half. We’re way off pace – even against our own targets.

The Act created a statutory climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), whose job is to advise ministers on the most cost-effective’ way to stagger progress towards that 2050 end-date. The CCC is a frightfully nice organisation, but in its 2018 annual report to Parliament, it got proper stroppy. The Government, it warns, needs to pull its finger out on pretty much everything that isn’t electricity generation: that means what we manufacture and consume, and the industries in which we work; how we get around; how we heat our homes and what sort of homes we build; and what we do with the land, and the soil, and our food. All of that stuff isn’t mere technocratic tinkering that happens around the edges of the proper economy’. It is the economy.

If I had one wonkish wish for the next 10 years it would be to give the CCC some proper teeth. One of its limitations is that the Committee on Climate Change has no specific remit to advise on broader economic policies, like what sort of tax and spend the chancellor should do beyond the narrow strictures of sending price signals to clean vs dirty energy. It would be a fitting way to mark both the first 10 years of the Act, and set out a signal of intent about what the next 10 imply, if the CCC was specifically asked to set out its own alternative Budget for the economy as a whole: what Philip Hammond should do if he and his department actually took climate change as seriously as the science implies they should. And for Mr Hammond to respond on the floor of the House, explaining very clearly if he doesn’t think that’s a good idea. 

If we’ve learned one thing from how far we’ve come, it’s how far we still have to go. Done right, it’s all good stuff: sustainable, decent work in new industries; clean, efficient, widely owned and affordable infrastructure, transport and energy; healthier and greener towns and cities. But we need a plan for it. It’s impossible to read the clarion calls of climate scientists as anything other than an appeal to put climate change at the heart of just about everything governments do.

10 years on from the groundbreaking Climate Change Act, we take this week to investigate what preventing climate chaos will look like across the UK economy. From digital tech to the health system, governance to finance, and how to talk about climate change, we explore where we are falling short — and how we can change the rules to build an economy fit for the future.

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