UK 'will have to in­ter­vene in mar­ket to meet cli­mate obli­ga­tions'

The Guardian Australia - - Environment - Fiona Har­vey En­vi­ron­ment cor­re­spon­dent

The UK’s obli­ga­tions in re­sponse to this week’s warn­ings from the UN over global warm­ing will be con­tro­ver­sial and po­lit­i­cally fraught, tak­ing the coun­try into “un­charted ter­ri­tory” and test­ing the po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus on cli­mate change, its top cli­mate ad­viser has warned.

The gov­ern­ment will have to reg­u­late in­dus­try and in­ter­vene in the mar­ket in ways that will prove con­tro­ver­sial in par­lia­ment, pre­dicted Chris Stark, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Com­mit­tee on Cli­mate Change (CCC). He is charged with ad­vis­ing min­is­ters on how swift and how deep cuts in emis­sions should be and how they can be achieved, and his com­mit­tee will start work on the UN In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) ad­vice shortly.

“We will be chal­lenged as never be­fore,” he said. “We will be scru­ti­nised as never be­fore. We must stick up to that scru­tiny. We will be forc­ing politi­cians to make hard de­ci­sions. We will be test­ing the po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus [on cli­mate change].”

He said re­duc­ing emis­sions by the amounts needed would “re­quire an­swers that the mar­ket un­fet­tered will not de­liver”.

“It will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see how par­lia­ment re­acts to the long-term tar­get,” Stark said, in an in­ter­view that took place be­fore the IPCC’s find­ings were for­mally pub­lished but af­ter ac­cu­rate leaks had in­di­cated its find­ings. “It will be a real test of how par­lia­ment has changed in the last 10 years. The po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment will be more dif­fi­cult. Par­lia­ment is more di­vided.”

Min­is­ters are pledged to seek ad­vice from the CCC, set up un­der the 2008 Cli­mate Change Act to be the statu­tory ad­viser on set­ting and meet­ing green­house gas tar­gets, on how to re­spond to the IPCC re­port, pub­lished on Mon­day. Claire Perry, busi­ness min­is­ter, an­nounced in April that she would ask the com­mit­tee to re­view the UK’s cur­rent cli­mate tar­get – of an 80% cut in emis­sions from 1990 lev­els by 2050 – soon af­ter the IPCC’s find­ings.

Any anal­y­sis is likely to cen­tre on the UK be­com­ing “net zero” in emis­sions terms by mid-cen­tury. That would in­volve re­duc­ing emis­sions as far as pos­si­ble, for in­stance by ramp­ing up clean en­ergy and switch­ing to elec­tric ve­hi­cles, while in­creas­ing the UK’s car­bon “sinks”, such as forests and soils. It could also in­clude the op­tion of off­set­ting any re­main­ing emis­sions by in­vest­ing in emis­sions cuts in other coun­tries.

The CCC was not warned in ad­vance of Perry’s an­nounce­ment, though Stark said he was “de­lighted” by it, and has still not been for­mally asked to un­der­take the new anal­y­sis. Un­til the gov­ern­ment makes an of­fi­cial re­quest, which may come next week, the terms of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and re­port can­not be set out.

“Our work has to be above re­proach, the gold stan­dard, [but] I think what we say will be con­tro­ver­sial,” he said. “We will be look­ing at is­sues and chal­lenges to this coun­try and this econ­omy that will take us into un­charted ter­ri­tory.”

It will take at least six months for the com­mit­tee to pro­duce such a re­port, mean­ing the re­sults are likely to be pub­lished some time af­ter the of­fi­cial date of Brexit next March.

Stark said the in­de­pen­dence of the CCC, which sets out a “strait­jacket” of five-year car­bon bud­gets that re­quire pol­icy tar­gets years be­yond the cur­rent par­lia­ment, was at the core of its mis­sion. If a gov­ern­ment wishes to chal­lenge the tar­gets, it must seek ju­di­cial re­view, a step no ad­min­is­tra­tion has taken in 10 years of the act.

“We are po­lit­i­cally en­gaged, and po­lit­i­cally aware, but it is very im­por­tant that we do an in­de­pen­dent job,” he said. “We have a role and we have used that role ex­tremely se­ri­ously. We have an­a­lyt­i­cal rigour – we are a tech­ni­cal body – and I do not think that we have been politi­cised. We are not an NGO, we are not a cam­paign­ing group.”

But Stark warned of risks to the pre­vail­ing cross-party po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus on cli­mate change in the UK that could make set­ting pol­icy on the is­sue harder than it has been on the past. “There was a de­gree of con­sen­sus on cli­mate change in 2008 [when the Cli­mate Change Act was passed],” he said. “The con­sen­sus is still there but the ex­cite­ment that was there 10 years ago is not there now.”

Stark does not think such an act – unique when it was passed, in al­low­ing for long-term obli­ga­tions on emis­sions cuts that would be bind­ing on fu­ture par­lia­ments – would be passed in the same form to­day. “I’m hope­ful this gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to see cli­mate change as an is­sue [on which to] demon­strate lead­er­ship,” he said. “The Cli­mate Change Act was a gen­uinely bril­liant piece of leg­is­la­tion and has stood the test of time.”

The big­gest threats to ac­tion on cli­mate were po­lit­i­cal up­heaval and gov­ern­ment at­ten­tion, he added. “There is a fi­nite amount of po­lit­i­cal at­ten­tion, and the gov­ern­ment is un­der­stand­ably con­cerned with the im­pacts of Brexit,” he said. “The big­gest threat is a change in pol­i­tics and we must al­ways be alive to the fact that pol­i­tics can shift. I would worry about a change in the par­lia­men­tary at­mos­phere. This is an un­prece­dented po­lit­i­cal time.”

Pho­to­graph: cour­tesy of CCC

‘We will be forc­ing politi­cians to make hard de­ci­sions’ ... Chris Stark, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Com­mit­tee on Cli­mate Change.

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