Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Climate Change: The Zero Carbon Bill

The government has finally released its proposed Zero Carbon Bill. Following the framework set by the UK Climate Change Act (and advocated by Generation Zero), the bill establishes a framework for continuous emissions reductions, with long-term targets, five-yearly carbon budgets to establish a pathway to those targets, and independent reporting so we can hold governments accountable for meeting them. But the big question about this wasn't that process - which pretty much everyone agreed on - but the targets themselves. And here there's some good news. While I was expecting a sell-out, the targets are much better than expected: a 10% reduction in methane by 2030, with a 24% - 47% reduction by 2050, and net zero for all other gases. The variable methane target will be determined by a review in 2024, but the minimum level stabilises the level of warming from methane, while the upper limit would reduce it significantly. And even the interim 2030 target is going to mean reducing the number of cows, with flow-on benefits for water quality.

(As for that review in 2024, I would argue that we need to go harder on methane rather than softer. Because the goal isn't to "stabilise" warming, but to reduce it. Reducing methane is the fastest and most effective way of doing this in the short term, and cutting it hard will help buy us time for reducing longer-lived gases. We're in real danger of "positive feedback", existing warming making it worse, so anything we can do to reduce heat as quickly as possible is good. This is a crisis and we need to act like it).

But while I'm pleased with these targets, as both being more than I expected, and meeting their promises of real action, is it enough? While the government has been dithering, the science has progressed, and the situation now looks much more dire. 2050 looked great as a target year a decade ago, but it may now be too late. I suspect that we're going to have to increase our ambition and bring forward the target year for net-zero in the medium term.

The big problem with the bill is that enforcement is entirely political: it relies on governments having a sense of shame about not meeting targets. And there's a specific clause saying that while government agencies can take the 2050 target into account in decisionmaking, they don't have to, and that failure to do so does not invalidate any decision. If this law is to mean anything, that last bit has to go. We're in this hole in part because different bits of the government are working at cross-purposes - most notably, MfE trying to stop climate change, while MBIE encourages oil drilling and local government approves gas-fired powerplants and dairy conversions. We need all government agencies to be thinking about climate change, from the top to the bottom. And the way to do that is to allow their decisions to be overturned on normal public law grounds such as irrationality if they don't. Because it is irrational not to consider climate change or the government's emissions targets in policymaking, and that needs to be enforceable.