Climate Change in 2015

Climate Change is back.  Many would, of course, say that it never left. However, there is no question that it is set to dominate discussion through 2015 in a way it has not for several years.

I am new to the detailed debate about climate change. I became Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change in November. I joined with a background in using (mainly economic but also scientific) evidence to understand the impact of markets, competition, policies and regulation. This is the ideal job for me: working with the Committee such that they can provide an impartial view to Government and Parliament about the evidence on climate change, what is required in response and whether that is being done.

The recent Synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides considerable evidence on climate change, its causes and effects. It confirmed the increasing certainty from scientists that the climate is warming and that the dominant cause of global warming is human activity.

Last year also saw prominent business leaders – including leaders from the coal, oil and gas sectors – speaking about climate change. At the end of November, Lord Browne (former CEO of BP and current Board member of Cuadrilla with other positions in the energy sector around the world) gave an important speech. He was quoted in the Financial Times (20 November. 2014) as saying two things:

  1. All business should now regard the science as “settled”: “…the conclusion is not accepted by many in our [energy] industry, because they do not want to acknowledge the existential threat to their business”.
  2. Businesses should and can adapt their models to the changing world and, in particular, to the policy implications of climate change: “[energy sector businesses should look at] the opportunities presented by low carbon energy systems.”

Ben van Beurden (CEO of Shell) delivered pretty much the same message in The Times, (20 November 2014) adding that “companies such as Shell won’t be mere witnesses to the coming energy transition, but essential participants.”

One of the facts that most attracted me to my new position is the importance of the Committee’s role in assessing the many aspects of this debate impartially. The Committee will, of course, continue to consider new developments and evidence about the science very carefully. However, as an economist coming to this job from the private sector, the more contentious part of the debate for me is the appropriate response to the science.  This continues to be subject to a very wide-ranging debate.

The evolving knowledge, experience and evidence has to be scrutinised and weighed up.

I want to make sure the Committee considers all the levers available – including those not in the hands of government – to inform that response, in terms of both reducing emissions and adapting to ongoing climate change. This will include very careful consideration of where spending is needed given the tight fiscal circumstances; and where the forces of competition, behaviour change, innovation, entry and (yes, as an economist, I include) exit are the way to create cost-effective action.

We have two very important publications in the coming year that will cover these areas:

  • First, in June, the Committee will publish its first ever joint Progress Report to Parliament, covering both mitigation and adaptation. The joint report will clearly set out where we see the current state of play in light of the UK’s legal commitments to carbon budgets and need to adapt to the risks of ongoing climate change.
  • Second, in December (just as international leaders gather in Paris for the UN Climate Summit), the Committee will publish its recommendations for the fifth carbon budget (2028-32). The carbon budgets set a legal cap on levels of UK greenhouse gas emissions.  This budget covers the symbolically important year of 2030 by which time we need to be very firmly on the path to the agreed 2050 target.

I have, fortunately, inherited a crack team of experts able to model, analyse and assess the wide range of evidence needed to develop our recommendations.

What I am looking forward to is spending time to hear views and evidence first hand from those involved in this debate. I look forward to meeting all of you.

One of the most interesting facts I learned during my early months of induction is that the Climate Change Act – which sets up the Committee as independent advisor to Government and Parliament – was passed with 463 votes for and 3 against. It is one of the most bipartisan agreements Parliament has reached this millennium. The related Act in Scotland passed with no votes against. Legislators wanted impartial advice from a neutral source. From my new position I look forward to helping the Committee to continue in that spirit.

This post was written by Matthew Bell, Chief Executive, Committee on Climate Change.