As the Climate Change Act turns 10, James Murray offers an end-of-term report
The Climate Change Act is about to go to Big School. Horizons are about to broaden and fresh opportunities are poised to present themselves. At the same time the challenges - both official and extracurricular - are about to get significantly more demanding. The tests will get harder, the implications of failure will get more severe, the bullies will get nastier. There's no denying it's going to be a critically important and unremittingly tough decade, defined by growing pains, pangs of insecurity, and multiple competing tensions. The difficult teenage years are fast approaching and it is natural to feel daunted.
The good news is the Climate Change Act and the decarbonisation process it has driven starts its second decade in remarkably good health, as a top of the class pupil with huge potential to go further and faster.
The past few days have seen the inevitable flurry of articles in climate sceptic titles lamenting the Act as a costly failure, but the argument they present is truly laughable in both its paucity and hypocrisy. Virtually everything opponents of the Act predicted has proven to be either completely false or grossly exaggerated. There has been no collapse in UK competitiveness, no mass emigration of UK industry, no power blackouts, no end to economic growth (at least not one caused by climate policy), and no runaway increase in energy bills and fuel poverty, serious as the issue remains.
Meanwhile, the way in which many of the fiercest critics of the Climate Change Act have morphed into the most vocal cheerleaders for the hardest of Brexits only serves to highlight their era-defining absence of self-awareness. How can they claim to champion the handful of businesses concerned about the costs associated with the Climate Change Act (the vast majority of whom have notably failed to relocate over the past decade) and then proudly declare we should "fuck business" when corporates actually start to redirect investment in response to Brexit? How can they declare themselves the champions of the least well off when campaigning against high energy bills, only to dismiss Brexit-related food price inflation, the plummeting pound, and the threat of medicine shortages as 'Project Fear'?
The answer, of course, is their Kevlar-clad belief that in the longest of long runs Brexit will deliver net benefits. In the ultimate of ironies, this is precisely the same as the argument in support of the Climate Change Act. The key difference is the Climate Change Act has a decade-long track record of demonstrating how decarbonisation is compatible with economic growth, cleaner air, job creation, and environmental improvements. In contrast, the argument for an eye-wateringly Hard Brexit is so shot through with magical thinking and gear-crunching contradictions that the government is willing to actually tear itself apart in trying to avoid it at all costs.
The Climate Change Act's achievements are familiar to anyone who works in the green economy, but they are worth repeating.
Greenhouse gas emissions are down around 40 per cent on 1990 levels - more than any other G7 nation. Renewables have gone from around five per cent of the power mix to over 25 per cent. Low carbon power has soared from around a fifth of the mix to over half. Coal has been forced off the grid for days at a time, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Energy efficiency has continued to improve year-on-year. Average vehicle emissions have fallen. And all of this has been achieved while near full employment has been maintained and economic growth has been sustained (any sluggishness in our performance has a lot more to do with risk-addicted bankers and austerity loving politicians, than climate policy tinkering). Energy prices may have ticked upwards, but thanks to efficiency measures and compensation packages for energy intensive industries the disastrous energy bill inflation that critics of the Act predicted simply has not come to pass. Perhaps most important, the cross party political consensus in support of the Act that saw just five MPs vote against it has been nurtured - just about.
Inevitably there have been plenty of missteps and imperfections. The decisions to cut energy efficiency funding, axe the zero carbon home standard, and hamper the development of onshore wind and solar farms may have won David Cameron some positive headlines in Paul Dacre's Daily Mail, but now both Cameron and Dacre have gone and the decisions have actively pushed up energy bills and led to higher emissions. It remains true the government (and hence billpayers) paid over the odds for the first wave of renewables projects. The ditching of a flagship CCS project means R&D on crucial industrial decarbonisation is not as advanced as it should be. The system of green levies remains regressive and the failure to move faster to protect energy-intensive industries from rising costs only served to politicise the issue, even as Ministers were working on a solution. Worst of all, nothing has yet managed to halt the government's love affair with high carbon projects. From Heathrow to the North Sea via the freeze on fuel duty and the fracking obsession, Ministers have failed to internalise what deep decarbonisation actually means.
But on balance the Climate Change Act and its unrelenting requirement to set and deliver on carbon budgets has provided the framework under which many of the big policy decisions have broken in the right direction. The Electricity Market Reform process started under Ed Miliband and carried forward by Chris Huhne, Ed Davey, Amber Rudd, and now Claire Perry may have triggered plenty of criticism (much of it justified), but it also sparked an historic surge in green energy investment. George Osborne's carbon price floor was critical in driving the closure of a raft of dirty coal-fired power plants. A combination of technology innovation and EU efficiency standards have led to a steady reduction in energy use and a fall in average vehicle emissions.
This progress has added up to deliver a multi-billion pound green economy that employs hundreds of thousands of people and is growing around four times faster than the underlying economy. It has also provided a template for the world to follow with the Act's system of budgets and official Committee on Climate Change oversight providing the inspiration for not just numerous other national climate laws, but even the Paris Agreement itself. It is tempting to reflect on how much further and faster the UK's decarbonisation could have gone without the many political compromises that have been made, but on balance the glass is half full.
The big question is can it remain so? The celebrations that have marked the 10th anniversary of the Climate Change Act have been notable for their muted nature. There are too many ghosts at the feast.
Chief amongst them is the fact the UK is no longer on track to meet its medium term carbon budgets. Even in the areas where decarbonisation should be relatively easy there are problems. Progress on clean power is still being hampered by those politically motivated cuts to energy efficiency funding and barriers to onshore renewables. The hopes of deep decarbonisation now seem to rest on the twin gamble that new nuclear projects will be delivered on time and on budget and offshore wind costs will keep plummeting.
In the areas where emissions cuts have been harder to come by the problems are even more acute. The nascent electric vehicle sector is hugely exciting, but it comes with major infrastructure challenges. The same is true of the even more embryonic green heat technologies, highlighted by the Committee on Climate Change last week. The harsh reality is the plans to decarbonise heavy industry and agriculture amount to warm words and some extremely modest R&D funding.
Some ministers promise that a positive step change is in the pipeline, but at the same time some of their colleagues dog whistle that amidst the Brexit chaos ambitious environmental policy should be one of the first things for the chopping block. The Prime Minister and Chancellor maintain a studied silence on it all.
There had been rumours Number 10 was planning a major set piece speech to mark the Climate Change Act's 10th anniversary. The manner in which it has been completely superseded by the latest round of Brexit dramas tells you all you need to know about the narrowness of Theresa May's current ambitions and where the biggest long term existential threat the UK faces is placed in the government's list of priorities. Her goal appears to be nothing more than day-to-day survival, but survival to achieve what exactly?
The government is yet to sketch it out something coherent enough to call it a doctrine, but its plan to deliver the next phase of the Climate Change Act can be best summed up by four words: 'technology will save us'. The hope is that effectively allocated R&D can bring down the cost of low carbon technologies so drastically that market forces will do all the heavy lifting of mass scale deployment. That explains the early withdrawal of subsidies for renewables, the curbing of energy efficiency funding, the reluctance to crank up polluter pays taxes, the relaxed approach to eco-design standards, and a lot more besides.
It might just work: the government has pumped a lot of money into broadly the right areas and stepped up investment in enabling infrastructure. Meanwhile, clean tech is poised to make dramatic progress on multiple fronts from the early 2020s onwards. It is possible to envisage a scenario where renewables undercut fossil fuels, EVs undercut conventional cars, and green businesses push their dirty rivals to the margins of public life. The Climate Change Act's second decade could prove hugely exciting.
But equally when you consider the very real likelihood the end goal will soon shift from 80 per cent emissions cuts to net zero emissions, the short time available to deliver deep decarbonisation, the disruption of Brexit, and the intransigence of the market failures that have led to climate change in the first place - well, the focus on a patchwork of relatively light touch interventions delivered alongside continued high carbon investment feels like the ultimate high stakes gamble.
The Climate Change Act should be delighted at its progress over the past decade. But as it approaches the difficult teenage years it does so knowing that the parents are distracted, too many people are still prepared to dismiss it as a pesky kid who'll never come to much, and the path ahead is littered with obstacles. A decade in, the journey has barely begun.