Why Douglas Carswell is wrong about the Climate Change Act

The Tory MP's mea culpa about his support for the Climate Change Act might have more credibility if there were fewer mistakes

25 Feb 2013, 16:21

Earlier today, the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell issued a mea culpa describing his support of the 2008 Climate Change Act as his "biggest regret as an MP".

The blog outlines the standard criticism of the Climate Change Act put forward by Carswell and a handful of his colleagues in the past (it's too expensive, unnecessary, undemocratic - that sort of thing). But it also contained a number of errors about the Act and the Committee on Climate Change.

Through the magic of Twitter I said Carswell did not understand the Climate Change Act and called on him to correct the mistakes.

He said I would say that as I am a "chap with vested interest in "green" energy" and refused to make any changes, adding that I should "feel free to fisk ...." - the media term for a sentence-by-sentence deconstruction of an article you disagree with.

Fisking is not a particularly pleasant or sophisticated rhetorical device, but it's been done to me a few times in the past, and Carswell did invite me to take on his blog post - so, here goes.

My biggest regret as an MP is that I failed to oppose the 2008 Climate Change Act.

It is a bit strange an MP living through an era of economic catastrophe and dubious expenses selects the Climate Change Act as the single biggest regret of their political career. You'd think the whole economic crash, squeezed living standards, collapsing confidence in our political institutions would have been nearer the top of their list. You may also wonder if Carswell may one day come to regret his systematic efforts to destabilise his own leader and Party as the greater error, but for now it is the Climate Change Act that apparently gets top billing in his personal hall of shame - each to their own I suppose.

It was a mistake. I am sorry.

Fair enough, it takes nerve to apologise, even if an apology doubles as a transparent attempt to ingratiate oneself with climate sceptic supporters.

On the very day the Labour government passed this fatuous attempt to "stop global warming", it was, if I remember rightly, snowing.

If anyone has any clue as to what the weather on the day the Act was passed has to do with anything, please do let me know. I think Carswell is trying to suggest that because it was snowing climate change is not that serious, which is bizarre in the extreme, given it proves nothing of the sort. It is akin to Carswell saying "The day I voted for an EU referendum I met a Frenchman... I should have known."

Had I opposed the Bill, it wouldn't have made much difference, but I feel I should have known better.

Carswell is right, it would have made no difference. The Act was passed overwhelmingly with all three of the main parties supporting the legislation. The only difference it would have made is that Carswell's position as a darling of the Tory right would have been even more impregnable.

Unlike much of the gesture legislation that goes through Parliament, this law has turned out to have real consequences. The Climate Change Act has pushed up energy prices, squeezing households and making economic recovery ever more elusive.

This is technically correct. The decarbonisation goals delivered through the Act have led to higher energy bills in the short term and by definition any increase in bills will squeeze households. But the government's own estimates make it clear energy bills have risen by less than 10 per cent due to green tariffs (in fairness these figures are complicated and contested, they depend on what tariffs you include and when you start from, but what is clear is that the vast, vast majority of recent price hikes are due to the drastic increase in the cost of gas. No one is contesting this. It seems strange Carswell fails to mention it).

The aim of the Climate Change Act was to create a low carbon economy. I fear the Act will do that, but perhaps not the way intended. The Climate Change Act is giving us a low carbon economy the way that pre-industrial Britain had a low carbon economy.

An intriguing prediction that we will only be able to test in 10 to 20 years time. That said I am more than happy to wager that by the mid 2020s the UK will not have returned to a horse-and-cart pre-industrial economy.

Cutting carbon emissions by 26 per cent by 2020 - as the Act requires - means, in effect, making energy costs so high that some will have to go without. How is that progress?

This is technically incorrect. The Act does not require the UK to cut emissions 26 per cent by 2020, it actually requires emissions to be cut by 34 per cent against a 1990 baseline by 2020. But this is also a simplification as the budgets cover five year periods, giving governments the flexibility to meet longer term budgets should economic circumstances adversely impact one individual year. Also you could argue that while the Act requires the government to set the budgets, it did not originally technically require a reduction of either 26 per cent or 34 per cent by 2020; it required the government (not the CCC) to set the budgets based on what it thinks is the least cost path to achieving an 80 per cent cut in emissions by 2050. The UK, partly because of the economic downturn, is on track to meet its current budgets for the 2020s, but there are countless ways of achieving them without "making energy costs so high that some will have to go without" and the government's electricity market reform and energy efficiency programme are projected to deliver a reduction in bills by 2020 compared to business-as-usual.

The Act's carbon price floors push up prices. Instead of energy producers competing to supply households and businesses with a product at a price they are willing to pay, the legislation introduces a system of price fixing. Suppliers switch to so called "renewable" energy sources, and the end user pays.

Again, technically the Act does not set a carbon price floor - the Treasury decided to do that. But that aside Carswell is right that the government's reforms do involve what he calls a system of price fixing. He's right that this is an imperfect way to run a market, but it would be nice to hear how he plans to address climate change risks if we are not to follow the government's approach. It is unclear how the wind, waves, and sun are only "so-called" sources of "renewable" energy. We may have to hire a physicist to explain.

An unaccountable quango - the Committee on Climate Change - gets to determine energy policy much the way that central bankers now run monetary policy.

This is completely wrong. The CCC is accountable to government and appointed by government. It does not determine energy policy, it advises on climate policy. The government can and does ignore its advice on occasions, most recently deferring a decision on a decarbonisation target for the power sector.

The precedent is not a good one. Adair Turner, head honcho at the Financial Service Authority, was/is its chairman.

This is a strange sentence. I accused Carswell on Twitter of wrongly stating that Turner "is" chair of the CCC. He told me to "read the blog". I reread it and found that the sentence reads that Turner "was" chair of the CCC, which of course he was before being replaced by Lord Deben last year. I apologised. But then it was pointed out that the version of Carswell's blog post reproduced on the website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation stated: "Adair Turner, head honcho at the Financial Service Authority, is its chairman". That version has now been changed to get the correct tense, but either way, the body Carswell accuses of having control of UK energy policy is now chaired by his Conservative colleague Lord Deben.

The tragedy is that it does not have to be this way. Technological innovation is discovering new ways of obtaining vast reserves of fossil fuel.

There was always going to be a shale gas sentence, and here it is. Yes, we are finding new ways of extracting and burning fossil fuels, but they still result in the release of carbon emissions and everyone from the IEA to the World Bank thinks that gas prices in the UK will remain high and volatile for years to come.

As our understanding grows, the idea that human activity alone causes climate change seems less certain than it once did.

And there was also always going to be a sentence on climate scepticism. It is not even worth arguing with such a scientifically dubious position, particularly given no climate scientist has ever said human activity alone causes climatic change. But climate scientists are more certain, not less certain, about humanity's role in driving climate change. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change draft report declared, it is now "extremely likely that human activities have caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperatures since the 1950s". Using the IPCC's terminology that means it is 95 per cent certain, an increase on the 90 per cent certainty attached to its 2007 report on manmade climate change. Suffice to say, yet again, every national science academy in the world regards manmade climate change as a serious and worsening threat to global security and prosperity.

Wind turbines, it turns out, are renewable in the sense that they need replacing every 25 years - or perhaps even every 15.

Again, I'm not sure what the point is supposed to be here. Wind farms do need replacing after a lengthy period of service. Investors and policy makers know this when they are built. Fossil fuel and nuclear power stations similarly need periodic upgrades and replacements. But in the case of fossil fuels they also need coal, gas, and oil to be extracted, processed, shipped, and burnt every single day.

Too often, public policy in Whitehall is shaped by residual ideas and assumptions - which turn out to be wrong. Nowhere is this more so than when it comes to energy policy. It is time for a fundamental rethink about energy policy - starting with an acknowledgment that 2008 Act has got it wrong.

Carswell is right. It is time for a fundamental rethink about energy policy, but not around the Climate Change Act, more around the way a small cabal of climate sceptics are desperately trying to lock the UK into decades of reliance on imported, volatile, and polluting fossil fuels. In contrast, the Climate Change Act should be praised for laying the foundations for billions of pounds of investment, hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and a major boost to the UK's competitiveness that the Prime Minster is desperately keen to see. Foundations that are delivered, not through prescriptive anti-democratic policies as Carswell alleges, but through the creation of a long-term legal framework that it is the responsibility of government to build on.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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