Things are hotting-up over here on climate change. And I’m not talking about the fact that we’re set to have the warmest year on record. The political temperature is rising, too.
The European Union has agreed to a joint CO2 target for its 27 member countries and their 490 million citizens. The leaders committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020. But this is just a starter. The E.U. says that if other countries — such as the U.S. — agree to do more, we will up our target to 30 percent. So, we have 20 percent on the table unilaterally, with a chunk more if you guys step up to the plate.
Then, the U.K. government published a draft climate-change bill, which will make us the first country in the world to set legally binding carbon targets.
The bill will set U.K.’s targets — for a 60 percent reduction by 2050 and around a 30 percent reduction by 2020 — in statute. It will also bring in a new system of legally binding five-year "carbon budgets." These will provide clarity on whether the U.K. is on the right path to meet its commitments. There will be a new independent advisory and scrutiny body, the Committee on Climate Change, annually reporting to Parliament on progress.
The proposed bill was launched by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Chancellor Gordon Brown, and the Environment Minister David Miliband. Miliband, one of the rising stars of British politics, also announced the initiative via a jargon-heavy YouTube webcast.
Most commentators welcomed the package. Friends of the Earth said, "We are delighted that the government has recognized the need for a new law to tackle climate change. The U.K. will be the first country in the world to introduce a legal framework for reducing carbon emissions." And investors should also be pleased with the certainty it gives.
The combination of long- and short-term targets is important. We need the long-term signals to give direction to business and society. But we also need to start acting now, and make sure we are going in the right direction. Without short-term targets, we will see the NIMTO effect (not in my term of office) where governments duck difficult decisions and leave them to future administrations.
Of course there are things to quibble about. Many NGOs want annual targets rather than five-yearly ones. And international aviation is not currently included in the measures. However, this bill is evidence of a real appetite to get things done. It is being backed up by a whole series of policy initiatives.
The Chancellor Gordon Brown, who will be prime minister from June, had already decreed that within 10 years all new homes would have to be zero carbon. He now wants to tackle existing housing stock and has also promised that "every home for which it is practically possible will become low carbon by 2016."
The current prime minister, Tony Blair, is backing a new U.K. trading scheme which is in addition to the European one. Known as the Energy Performance Commitment, it will cover large commercial and public-sector organizations such as universities, supermarkets, and hotel chains. Part of the rationale for this scheme is a feeling that the European trading scheme is not going far and fast enough.
Perhaps most radically, the environment minister, David Miliband, has been floating the idea of personal carbon allowances.
Much of this is still in the realm of targets and policies. And if there were a prize for setting targets, our current government would surely be the winner. But I do sense a real desire to do what is right and show leadership on climate change.
Why is this happening? It is partly because of ever-increasing clarity in the science. It is partly because big companies are suddenly getting serious about carbon. It is also, as I explained in Brit’s Eye View back in September, because there is now serious competition between the political parties as to who is the greenest.
The weekend before the launch of the draft climate-change bill, the leader of the Conservatives — David Cameron — proposed new "frequent flyer" taxes to restrict the growth of aviation. In order not to hit the ordinary family holiday, his proposal is to allow everybody one tax-free flight a year, and then to escalate up the charges so that those taking lots of flights pay more. This has proved rather unpopular with Cameron’s own party with their low-tax instincts, but has resonated very well with the green lobby. The very fact that a right-of-center political leader is now proposing such publicly unpopular green taxes shows just how far we have come in the climate-change debate here in the U.K.