This piece is reprinted from a piece written for The Guardian. Please folow this link for original
This is our opportunity to fix the accounting rules and keep national emissions within UK carbon budgets
Last month the government made a landmark decision to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero sometime this century. This makes Britain the first country to commit to one of the key pledges in the Paris Climate Change Agreement reached last December.
This decision was prompted by a tireless, non-partisan campaign led by former Labour Leader Ed Miliband, the UK’s first ever Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Securing this commitment is an important new climate milestone for Miliband, who played a key role in establishing the UK Climate Change Act when he was in government. The decision is also a testament to the ongoing cross-party commitment to tackle climate change which originally allowed the Climate Change Act to be adopted. But while we should take a moment to welcome the symbolic advance that has been made, a major issue with the UK’s flagship climate policy still remains unresolved and which is much more pressing.
At the time of its adoption, the Climate Change Act was rightly held up as a path-breaking piece of environmental legislation, the poster-child policy for global climate leadership. The Act set an ambitious long-term target to cut UK emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, it introduced an independent Climate Change Committee to chart an affordable course to that 2050 target, and it established a system of five-year carbon budgets to ratchet national emissions down progressively over time.
But at some point shortly after this historic environmental victory – when the streamers had all been popped and the champagne had all been drunk – the lawyers and the accountants were called in to write the rules for our carbon budgets and somewhere along the way they decided to get a little creative.
The result of that creative accounting is something worthy of the Panama Papers. Our world-leading carbon budgets have been given feet of clay. While they pretend to limit emissions from the whole British economy, they only actually police half of them. The other half has been offloaded to the EU Emissions Trading scheme, which acts as a kind of offshore carbon haven. While the European carbon market is supposed to drive emissions reductions on the UK’s behalf, it is notoriously broken, and is still struggling to maintain a carbon price above a meagre five euros per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted – and this despite numerous political interventions to fix it over the past decade.
With the stroke of a pen the technocrats quietly absolved government of all responsibility to reduce emissions from some of the most obvious and most tractable sources of pollution in the land: the fossil-fuel devouring power stations and factories whose smokestacks belch millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year – not to mention huge amounts of other pollutants which damage our health more directly than CO2.
It’s incredible to think that the carbon budgets established under the Climate Change Act have not prompted the installation of a single solar panel or wind turbine and haven’t required a single coal-fired power station to close. But by virtue of their design they could not drive this change. These specific carbon abatement measures have either been driven by European Directives or by completely independent domestic political pressures and rules.
We are obliged, then, to pose a new question. As the government prepares to adopt the 5th UK carbon budget in June – the budget that will control emission from the year 2028 to 2032 – we need to ask not only what level that budget will be set at, but how it will be measured. Will it be an honest budget that does what it says on the tin, or will it be a budget that can be met through loopholes and accounting tricks?
We should soon find out. As the Energy Bill returns to the House of Lords on Tuesday, and both Houses negotiate the final legislation, a key amendment to fix the accounting rules is still up for grabs. This is our opportunity to straighten out the books and change the rules so the government is accountable for keeping all national emissions within the UK carbon budgets.
This proposal to close the reporting loopholes is backed by the Labour party, the Lib Dems, the Scottish National Party, the Greens and others. It also has the support of NGOs like the RSPB, Sandbag, Greenpeace, Client Earth and WWF. The Conservative Party’s manifesto says they will “continue to support the UK Climate Change Act”. The question right now is, will they help to fix it?