The CCC puts its thumb on the scale

by | Dec 11, 2013

Today the UK is debating whether or not to alter a legally enforceable carbon budget for 2023-2027 (Carbon Brief has an excellent explanation of the issues at stake). This will be the fourth budget and is designed to keep the country on track to reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 from a 1990 baseline.

Implementation in the UK may often still be disappointing, but no developed country has been so willing to create a legal framework that provides clear ‘signals from the future’ to investors about where they should put their money.

It’s a path that more countries will need to follow if the world is to have any hope of delivering the promise to stabilize the climate which was first made over twenty years’ ago.

The UK also has an independent statutory body – the Committee on Climate Change – that exists to advise ministers on the 2050 target and the budgets needed to get there. Think of a monetary policy committee – but with advisory powers rather than the ability to act on its own to set interest rates.

The Committee today published a report on whether the 2023-2027 budget should be revised and concluded that it shouldn’t. The budget is feasible and cost effective, it concludes. If anything, it would be cheaper for the UK to make bigger cuts in the short term, rather than waiting until neater to 2050.

So far so good.

But I want to quibble with one aspect of the Committee’s report. Actually it’s more than a quibble. I was enraged by the complacency with which it discussed whether other countries were matching the UK’s commitment.

The Committee’s report blithely asserts that progress towards a global climate deal is “broadly as expected” (really?) and that other countries are taking ‘comparable’ steps to reducing emissions, including the world’s largest emitters: China, the United States, and the European Union.The Committee’s reasoning – such as it is – is set out in an earlier volume of its report. The United States, it accepts, emitted more than twice as much as the UK on a per capita basis in 2011, while Chinese and British per capita emissions were roughly the same. (British emissions are average for the EU.)

The United States has never had any binding targets for reducing emissions and has no political consensus to create any. Legislative progress seems out of the question for a decade or more. Since 1990 (not an arbitrary baseline, but the time when the international community first began to accept that climate stabilization was an urgent priority), its emissions are up by 9%.

They are now finally falling and may be 20% below the 2005 level (an utterly arbitrary date) by 2020. But no-one has any idea how the US will achieve its non-binding pledge of an 83% cut against this baseline by 2050. And even if it did reach this level, its per capita emissions would still be higher than those the UK is aiming for.

China, meanwhile, has a carbon intensity target for 2020, which – if met – would see its emissions grow less explosively than they have been. It also has policy commitments to 2015. Beyond that, who knows? The Committee relies on a single study to blandly assert that Chinese “could peak” in the 2020s.

And it’s not even clear that Committee members have even read this study properly. It argues that a 2025 peak is possible, only with radical changes to current policies.

China needs to do much more than merely meet the government target announced in Copenhagen in 2009. The IPAC modelling analysis indicates that China can achieve this and cut its emissions by more than 70% relative to 2020 levels. A reduction of the necessary magnitude will require the near-simultaneous and successful deployment of all the available low-carbon energy technologies and massive international cooperation.

Sound like what’s currently happening? No, I didn’t think so. China is currently developing its green and its black economy as fast as it possibly can – and is far from betting its future on either. I wouldn’t be surprised to see its per capita emissions soon double those of the UK’s.

Then there’s the European Union, where a little reported debate is going on about future commitments. The British government says it is pushing for its EU partners to agree a 50% emissions cut by 2030, although ‘deep splits’ between European countries are said to make a 45% target more likely.

So the US has some reasonable targets, but no legislation or long-term policy commitments. Chinese emissions are over-shooting the UK’s and ‘may’ peak sometime in the future. And the European Union has a binding legal framework but only until 2020, not 2050.

Hard to understand how this meets any reasonable definition of comparability of effort.

Nor is this a trivial matter. Competing visions of what is fair are central to global climate change politics. If it read this post, the Chinese government would want historical emissions taken into account, while the Obama administration would point to its investment in green technologies (and argue that it will continue to work around Congress to keep emissions on a downward path).

You could also expect a debate about the consumption of emissions, rather than their production, with some arguing that British cuts are illusory – we’re simply importing goods after the carbon has been emitted.

Meanwhile, Germany would be one of a number of European countries that would argue that – for all the UK binds itself to targets more than half a lifetime away and carbon budgets that cover a generation – it is doing a much better job at transforming its energy system in the here and now. The UK is all mouth and no trousers, in other words.

But you know what? The CCC doesn’t cover these arguments either.

In fact, this part of its report reads like a piece of advocacy flailing somewhat desperately towards a foregone conclusion. It doesn’t want the government – or the Chancellor in particular – to have any wriggle room on climate policy, so it does its best to deprive him of a shred of evidence that British competitors may not doing their bit.

That’s a very dangerous tactic. Climate policy badly needs independent bodies that sit alongside the political hurlyburly that characterizes any democracy, providing a long-term perspective on a problem that can only be solved by the collective action of multiple governments of all political stripes

The same is true at international level – where the IPCC has done a great deal to anchor the debate on what climate science is telling policymakers. But look how fast the IPCC’s credibility shrunk when its independence was called into question during Climategate (whether unfairly or not – the mud stuck).

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change cannot afford to go in the same direction if it expect still to be assessing climate budgets in 2030 or 2050. So please – no more blandishments on a fair international division of effort should look like. The Committee needs to take its thumb off the scale and give us a balanced analysis of this question – even if it doesn’t like what it finds.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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