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The Climate Change Act: a retrospective

This week is Climate Week, which is an annual celebration of the contributions made by individuals, business and organisations to building a low-carbon economy. Climate Week provides us with a good opportunity to look back at the progress that’s been made on climate change mitigation, and more specifically under the Climate Change Act, which was now legislated a little over five years ago.

At the core of the Act is the 2050 target to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% relative to 1990, and the system of carbon budgets that provide five-year stepping stones to the 2050 target. They can be met through a combination of energy efficiency improvement, investment in low-carbon power generation, phased electrification of heat and surface transport, and targeted use of sustainable biofuels. The Act also requires the government to build the resilience of the country to climate change, and as required has published a climate change risk assessment, and National Adaptation Programme.

Policy progress made but more needed

The Act requires that the government develops policies to enable budgets to be met. These are being introduced across the economy, often following directly from CCC recommendations. The new Energy Act introduces long-term contracts to reduce risks for generators of low-carbon electricity. The Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation aim to help householders patch up the UK’s leaky homes, while the Renewable Heat Incentive supports the switch to low-carbon heating. EU targets in the transport sector are supplemented by UK approaches to modal shift and electric vehicles. The agriculture industry has collaborated with government to develop its own Action Plan for emissions reduction.

Although progress is being made, there is much more that can be done, and stronger incentives are needed to drive action in many key areas. For example, our Parliament report in June 2013 identified the need to do more on energy efficiency in residential and non-residential buildings and industry, and on renewable heat. We have also recommended that there should be a 2030 decarbonisation target for the power sector in order to provide confidence to investors. And fuel poverty remains a major problem to be addressed. We will return to these issues in our Parliament Report in July this year.

A stable framework

We have seen during recent cuts in government spending, how the Act has ensured the UK’s climate response remained stable and predictable, rather than subject to short-term political considerations (e.g. for Carbon Capture and Storage, for electric vehicles, and, through the Levy Control Framework, for renewable power generation). There has even been an example of a specific policy decision (Heathrow expansion) being successfully challenged over a failure to refer to the Climate Change Act.

That stability boosts certainty for business and confidence for investors in low-carbon technologies. It is easy to contrast that with the ups and downs of the UN climate process, the volatility in the European carbon price, and major policy reversals seen in countries like Spain and Australia. It is necessary to build that confidence in the UK by taking an early decision to keep the fourth carbon budget at the level currently legislated rather than to reduce its ambition.

International interest

Internationally, the Climate Change Act has created much interest. In the five years since the Act was passed, we have met with 100s of representatives from other countries – legislators and policy-makers, journalists, campaigners, academics, businessmen, and other interested parties. They are all interested in the Climate Change Act and its impact on policy and stability. Many are implementing climate laws of their own. Mexico’s General Law on Climate Change includes a legally-binging 2050 target, Denmark is preparing a climate change bill for 2014, China’s 12th five-year plan puts it on track to meet its UN commitment, in sub-Saharan Africa new national strategies and plans could form the basis for future legislation. For a detailed run-down of the growing extent and breadth of legislative activity on climate change see last week’s report from GLOBE International.

The balance of policies, and indeed the carbon budgets themselves, will always be subject to review. That is right in a world of shifting priorities and improving evidence. The Climate Change Act provides for that flexibility, but it also prevents unjustified changes. The long-term framework and the direction of travel is clear. The Act is working, although – as always – there is much still to do.