Why we need an environment and climate watchdog

drought.pngThis blog was first published by Business Green.

The unprecedented, prolonged heatwave that Britain and much of the northern hemisphere is experiencing seems to have brought climate change, albeit temporarily, to the forefront of our public and political discourse. A timely report from the Environmental Audit Committee has warned there will be 7,000 heat-related deaths every year in the UK by 2050, triple today’s rate, if we do not take further action. Former energy and climate secretary Amber Rudd penned a Times op-ed stating climate change is here and rising global temperatures are already baked in. But the thrust of her argument was that a madcap approach to Brexit could unravel Britain’s ambitious climate goals. Addressing climate change, she said, requires “co-operation, shared sovereignty and internationalism.”

This is also why an alliance of major businesses and investors recently called on the government and the European Commission (EC) to prioritise energy and climate in the Brexit negotiations.

Climate change is a worrying omission
Greener UK has highlighted a governance gap from Brexit for the natural environment, which led to the Defra consultation on Environmental Principles and Governance (EPG), just concluded. The consultation sought views on the creation of a world leading environment watchdog, expected to undertake all the key functions of the EU Commission and related bodies. But, worryingly, it suggests leaving climate change out of the watchdog’s remit.

The consultation claims the UK’s Climate Change Act is adequate to hold our leaders to account and deliver on our targets. Whilst it is true that the act is fairly robust, this doesn’t acknowledge the fact that EU derived regulation and institutions help us to enforce and deliver our climate goals. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) estimates that 55 per cent of UK emission reductions to 2030 will be delivered by EU level regulations like new vehicle emission standards, renewable energy and efficiency directives and f-gas regulation, to name just a few. These are agreed and enforced by EU institutions so, when we leave the EU, there will be a domestic governance gap on climate.

The EU’s approach is stronger
A crucial approach to governance in the EU includes the setting of targets, both interim and final, that provide a clear direction to member states and offer businesses a clarity on their investment goals. The Renewable Energy Directive for example requires states to align their 2020 targets to meet the EU wide cumulative renewable energy target of at least 20 per cent. The directive provides a trajectory as guidance to member states in meeting their targets and, if these are missed by far, the European Commission may consider a member state at high risk of not reaching the binding target, and could consider opening infringement procedures.

Similarly, the recently agreed legislation on the Governance of the Energy Union includes the setting of ‘reference points’ in 2022, 2025 and 2027 for meeting certain minimum percentages of the total renewable energy foreseen for 2030. The Commission evaluates progress against these interim targets and member states that are off track are expected to take corrective action by implementing additional measures to cover their gaps.

This approach of setting milestones and creating a cost effective trajectory is critical for the UK to keep a track of its climate targets. One could argue that the CCC can perform this function, as it already produces annual progress reports. But the key difference between the CCC and the European Commission is that the CCC lacks any enforcements powers or ability to opening infringement procedures.

It is possible that NGOs, supported by philanthropic money, could act on the CCC’s advice and take the government to court under the Climate Change Act. However, as the consultation itself highlights, “NGOs vary in strength, coverage, specialist knowledge and standing” and so cannot be relied on “to provide an official and systematic supervisory role, like that delivered by the European Commission for the EU”.

The existing mechanism of judicial review under the Climate Change Act is also too narrow in scope and remit and often too restrictive in terms of access (including costs). Instituting a public body with adequate resources able to pursue such measures if necessary is vital to ensure compliance with our legislated carbon targets.

We shouldn’t separate environment and climate
The artificial separation of environment and climate is not tenable and is evident in the fact that environment and climate regulation overlap significantly. Effective environmental regulation should take into consideration its resilience to climate change and not doing so creates the risk of conflicting and negative outcomes for the natural environment and long term climate impacts. An example of this is the UK’s marine biodiversity legislation which fails to consider the resilience of marine ecosystems to climate change, despite growing evidence that it should.

The Climate Change Act is a pioneering piece of legislation driving the UK’s decarbonisation forward. However, while it legislates for carbon targets, it continues to function alongside another established mechanisms in the EU that facilitate the meeting of these targets through collectively agreed, cost effective regulations. Brexit might give the UK a lot more flexibility in how it meets its climate change objectives domestically but it will still leave a significant governance gap that will need filling once EU institutions no longer have any influence.

Far from introducing additional administrative burden, bringing climate change within the watchdog’s remit will create an equivalence to the current system and a regulatory clarity for business. It will ensure rigour in holding the government to account, and it will meet Michael Gove’s ambition to create a truly ‘world leading’ environment watchdog.

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