Brexit and the Climate Emergency Committee

James Murray
 Brexit and the Climate Emergency Committee

Amidst yesterday's latest round of Brexit chaos and division there was an unexpected but hugely important silver lining to be found

It would be easy to write today on Brexit, but ultimately it would amount to yet more speculation about speculation, an attempt to ascribe certainty where no such thing exists.

We do not yet know if Boris Johnson's reheated and weakened version of Theresa May's deal can pass through the Commons, nor whether such passage might yet rest on amendments that allow for a second referendum. We do not know what will happen if the deal joins May's version on the scrapheap of history. We do not know how the critical trade deal negotiations will pan out during the next phase of the rolling Brexit saga if the deal scrapes over the line. And we do not know what result a second referendum or election designed to break any deadlock would bring - although we can say with confidence any such campaign would be brutishly ugly and may still struggle to end the current political chaos.

From a green economy perspective, we do not know whether this deal opens the door to environmental deregulation and a pollutocrats' charter, or lights the path to a trade deal where the EU's far superior negotiating leverage and the government's stated commitment to the environment ensures the UK can only ever exceed European green rules.

The reason so many green commentators are so wary of the proposed deal is that by moving 'level playing field' protections into the non-binding Political Declaration the government has - for all its protestations to the contrary - left open the possibility of the UK rejecting an EU trade deal and embracing a Trumpist 'race to the bottom' on regulations, standards, and a lot more besides.

Amidst all this uncertainty, the one thing we do know is that it is, to quote Green Alliance's Dustin Benton, "desperately sad" that the British government feels it cannot at this stage accede to a legal requirement to maintain environmental protections it keeps insisting it wants to keep.

To sum it up, the government has taken back control by deferring the question of where control rests. It has scrapped the backstop by making the backstop permanent. It has promised to maintain strong environmental standards while legally crossing its fingers. Up is down and down is up. We have always been at war with Eastasia. It is, as ever, a mess.

However, something else happened yesterday in Westminster. Something good and important and hugely beneficial to the UK economy, which has been more than a little overshadowed by the latest Brexit drama.

The government confirmed it is to form a new Cabinet-level Committee on climate change and it will be chaired by the Prime Minister. It may sound like a dry, inside the beltway, process story, but in reality it is the biggest step forward for the net zero transition since the target passed into law this summer.

The old business adage beloved of companies trying to sell you analytics software is that 'you can't manage what you don't measure', but there is a simpler construction that is an even more clear-cut truism: you can't manage what you don't manage.

For too long, climate action has not been managed at the very top of government. It may be the biggest long term challenge and opportunity facing the global economy, but Prime Ministers and Presidents have tended to delegate the issue to junior ministers, dipping into the topic on the rare occasions public attention demands it. Consequently, progress has been remarkably piecemeal, even in those countries like the UK that boast legally binding emissions goals.

The formalised engagement of the Prime Minister should change the equation. It keeps feet to the fire and ensures all departments have to deliver meaningful progress. It focuses minds and forces top level politicians to engage with the political and technical challenges presented by decarbonisation. In short, it says 'this is a priority' - a fact that was intriguingly hammered home this morning in Boris Johnson's Tweet announcing the Brexit deal in which the environment was included in his list of four issues the government would now be able to focus on.

Inevitably, there are still lots of ways in which the government's new net zero governance plans could go awry.

It should be noted that Number 10 has not confirmed how often the committee will meet - it should be at least monthly - and nor has it said who will attend - at a minimum the PM has to be joined by the Chancellor, the Secretary to the Treasury, Foreign Secretary, the Business Secretary, Transport Secretary, Environment Secretary, Housing Secretary, Trade Secretary, Cabinet Secretary and relevant junior ministers.

Moreover, Whitehall is a veritable elephants' graveyard of committees and sub committees and working groups that were briefly in vogue before those in charge lost interest. An election dominated by a resurgent Brexit Party, an escalation of the culture war with Extinction Rebellion (not helped by this week's ill-judged disruption of public transport), a post-Brexit recession, all could result in the Prime Minister's attention wavering. 

But done right, the new committee has the potential to deliver a significant step change in the UK's decarbonisation efforts, regardless of whether it is Johnson or his successor who ends up chairing it in the coming years.

What does 'done right' look like? I've long argued for a COBRA-style committee on climate action and this committee could deliver precisely that. It should be colloquially, and indeed actually, described to as the 'Climate Emergency Committee' and the PM should invite expert witnesses to brief Ministers on a regular basis. Following every meeting Number 10 should be at pains to brief the press, MPs, and the public on progress and the issues that were debated. Top priorities should include ensuring the COP26 Summit has proper resourcing and direction right from the top and delivering the newly promised net zero 'pathway' as soon as possible.

Crucially, it should provide a model for businesses and other governments to follow, actively demonstrating what can be achieved when climate action is treated as an organisational priority.

Most of all though the committee should be a mechanism for ensuring decarbonisation trajectories are on track, new policies are developed, and public awareness of the critical importance of climate action is increased.

Taken in conjunction with yesterday's confirmation the Committee on Climate Change is to provide guidance on the sixth carbon budget next September and yesterday's announcements that the government intends to deliver a raft of new net zero compatible policies over the next 12 months, the announcement of the new committee provides businesses and investors with yet more evidence the government is going to beef up its decarbonisation efforts. It promises to deliver leadership, certainty, and progress. Or to put it another way, it is the very antithesis of the never-ending Brexit quagmire.

A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.

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