The trouble with targets

This post is by Green Alliance associate Rebecca Willis. It also appears on her website.

Yesterday, the prime minister was directly asked the question that we’ve all been waiting for: is the UK’s domestic climate policy compatible with the Climate Change Act, and the new Paris Agreement?

Government policy on carbon reduction has come under heavy fire from just about everyone. The CBI, Al Gore, the Committee on Climate Change and many others have criticised recent decisions, including drastic reductions in feed-in tariffs, the cancellation of funding for carbon capture and privatisation of the Green Investment Bank, saying that they add up to a significant weakening of support for the low carbon economy.

Yet when this criticism was put to David Cameron, by fellow MP Huw Irranca Davies, the prime minister was indignant. His precise reply was: “I couldn’t disagree more fundamentally.”

What gives the prime minister the authority to dismiss expert critics in such a way? None other than the backbone of climate action itself: the Climate Change Act.

David Cameron, his front bench lead Amber Rudd and others have an instant reply to any criticism, saying that they are fully supportive of the long term targets set out in the Climate Change Act. If they are supportive of the Act, that means that their policies must be compatible, right?

Except that’s unlikely, unless Cameron and Rudd know something that their own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, or the many wise heads in the green business and finance community, don’t know. All the experts have pointed out the growing gulf between targets and action. But the Act becomes a sort of mantra: we are committed to the Act, therefore our policies must be sound.

More policies, not more targets
Just to be clear, I am a massive fan of the Climate Change Act and, indeed, of the process of setting carbon budgets. The UK was the first country in the world to adopt such a comprehensive approach, and others have followed our lead. I constantly use it as a way of explaining to everyone, from MPs to my friends and family, what needs to be done. It sets a clear direction of travel, and is a welcome statement of intent.

But it has a big drawback. It can be used as a fig leaf, a circular justification for just about any policy: this policy is surely compatible with our long term target because, well, we have a target. As Clive Bates said in the Twitter exchange that inspired this blog, it “inoculates against criticism”. It’s like brandishing your Weight Watchers membership card to prove that the plate of chips you’re eating will surely, in the long run, make you thinner.

And now there’s a danger that a similar thing will happen at the international level. The new aim of limiting warming to between 1.5 and 2oC is fantastic, and a significant outcome of the Paris talks. Yet the gulf between the long term target and the national plans to meet it is growing.

Where does this leave us? It’s certainly not an argument to get rid of the targets. But we need to be much more articulate about the link between current policy and long term targets. We should focus campaigns and advocacy not on more targets, but on realistic policies to achieve the ambitious targets we already have. And we should remain ever vigilant that ambitions, whether for world peace, weight loss or, indeed, climate mitigation are necessary but most definitely not sufficient.

Read the prime minister’s exchange with the Parliamentary Liaison Committee

Update: Jill Rutter from the Institute of Government has just sent me this very useful reportanalysing how targets like those in the Climate Change Act are used in government – and talking about some of the pitfalls. A good read if you want to delve deeper.

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