What the new green watchdog can learn from the Committee on Climate Change

This post is by Dr Ajay Gambhir, senior research fellow at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment.

path in park squareThis year marks the tenth anniversary of the UK Climate Change Act, the first of a kind legislation to hold a country to a long term greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal. One of its central components, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), is actually a year older than the act itself, having been established in a non-legislated ‘shadow’ form in 2007, to prepare advice on what the act’s long term emissions goal should be and how it could be achieved.

As a UK civil servant new to the climate change issue in 2007, I was lucky enough to be given the task of designing the committee, specifically its budget, functions and terms of reference.

Created from a confluence of circumstances
There was a highly constructive and co-operative attitude towards climate change in Whitehall ten years ago, with broad cross party support, as evidenced by an excellent mock climate change bill published by the then husky-hugging David Cameron and his Conservative party, and the normally cautious Treasury willing to play ball. It would be difficult for it not to, given that the recently launched report it had commissioned into the economics of climate change, the Stern Review, was already shaping not just the national but also global agenda on tackling climate change. And, with more than ten uninterrupted years of economic growth in the UK, no apparent discontent around EU integration and a feeling of general national prosperity, it seemed as though the government, businesses and the wider public could afford to care about a challenge that required relatively modest short term spending to avoid significant long term damage. Given the recent political and economic climate, I wonder when, if ever, we will see such a confluence of circumstances again?

The CCC was already an existing concept when I started working on the details of its design. The notion of a “credible carbon policy” rested on the creation of a non-political body in control of key instruments that would influence the UK’s emissions levels. Such a body, which would not be swayed by the short term demands of five year UK parliamentary periods, would act towards a long term target, taking into account economic, social and other factors in making its decisions. An obvious model on which to base such a body was the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), established by Chancellor Gordon Brown in 1997, with the goal of keeping inflation within pre-defined levels, using the interest rate as its sole instrument.

It quickly became clear in discussions across Whitehall that the CCC could not have the executive power to influence emissions through an instrument of its own (for example a carbon tax); this was because it would compromise the government’s control over fiscal instruments, apparently not an acceptable option, in spite of (and probably because of) the control it had already ceded over monetary policy when handing the interest rate to the MPC. Nevertheless, the MPC provided a useful template on which to design some of the key features of the CCC, notably the need to take economic factors into account when advising on the magnitude and rate of emissions reductions, as well as the approximate size of the decision making committee.

A useful template for other countries and the green watchdog
Ten years on, the UK is broadly on track to meet its current set of legislated carbon budgets, at least to the early-2020s, though several challenges remain to make the really deep reductions required beyond that period. The CCC has survived a rather aggressive cull of other non-departmental public bodies in the UK when the coalition government came to power in 2010, and continues to thrive as a well respected, authoritative organisation, providing robust analysis on the UK’s decarbonisation pathway. Any government rejection of the CCC’s analysis would have to be very well thought through and justified. And would probably fail.

The success of the CCC is a useful and important template for the creation and establishment of other countries’ advisory bodies on environment and climate change, which could be critical in advising governments and publicly holding them to account. This will be particularly important, for example, as they attempt to meet their Paris Agreement emissions reduction pledges and ratchet up their ambition towards the agreement’s ambitious 1.5oC long term goal.

In particular, there is much to reflect on and learn when considering the design and implementation of the proposed post-Brexit environmental watchdog, which has already come in for criticism as “toothless” in terms of its power to legally enforce adherence to existing EU environmental standards. As already mentioned, the political and economic circumstances leading to the creation of the Climate Change Act and the CCC are unlikely to be recreated anytime soon, at least in the UK.

But the CCC’s power comes from its analytical credibility and public nature of its advice, rather than through a legislated instrument to control or influence emissions levels. This is worth remembering when despairing about the new environmental watchdog; with the right analytical tools and sufficient independence, it could be a powerful force for environmental protection, as the CCC has proved to be.

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