A barrage of urgent advice from independent and business groups to the government of the UK on climate policies is exactly what our Government needs to hear, now, writes Rod Oram

It’s folly to declare bold climate targets then fail to develop policies to achieve them, the UK’s Climate Change Committee has warned the UK government about its performance to date.

Its admonishment is echoing around the world as governments, industries, companies, and civil societies race towards the next global climate negotiations in Glasgow in November making ever bolder declarations of what they intend to do.

Crucially, the Committee’s blunt message was widely endorsed by leaders in UK business, science, NGOs, politics and civil society. There were few dissenting voices other than the government itself, suggesting there is broad support in the UK for ambitious and effective climate action. Thus, the government is delinquent because it is incompetent; not because it lacks public support for climate action.

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We here in New Zealand particularly need to get the message. The quality of the climate work we all must do over the next six months will fundamentally set our decarbonisation trajectory for years to come.

The trigger is our Climate Change Commission’s recent recommendations, to which by law the government must respond with its Emissions Reduction Plan by the end of the year. It will be the framework by which we will devise and integrate the plethora of policies we need to meet our climate goals.

But we can’t leave the Government to do all the work. We all have crucial roles to play ramping activity across the spectrum from major corporates to individual citizens. Only a robust collective response can tackle the climate crisis.

A collective response depends on our engagement in the on-going governmental process. We can’t sit back, assuming the Government will turn the Commission’s recommendations into a credible Emissions Reduction Plan, and then turn that into the policies and programmes we must have over the next three years or so. To get a sense of how enormous the task all you need to do is run your eye down the 32 pages of the policy recommendations the UK Committee’s latest report makes to the UK government.

But if you want to have a role in keeping our government’s feet to the fire, you will have to have earned credibility through your own achievements on climate and your commitments to do more. That applies to every business, industry association, lobby group or other entity in society that engages on these vital issues.

The British Climate Committee has earned such mana in the 13 years since it was established by the UK parliament, by an almost unanimous all-party vote, as the world’s first such statutory body.

Its initial report in December 2008, “Building a low-carbon economy – the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change” recommended the UK reduce its greenhouse gases by at least 80 percent by 2050. It also recommended its first of three five-yearly carbon budgets to cover the periods 2008-22.

In addition to its enormous knowledge and deep credibility, its annual assessment of the effectiveness of government policies is helping the UK meet its declining carbon budgets. Thankfully, some of its staff generously shared their knowledge to help our government set up our equivalent Commission.

While the UK Committee’s judgments of its government’s performance have always been crystal clear and fearless, this year’s were particularly trenchant ahead of the UK hosting COP26, the UN climate negotiations in Glasgow.

“The rigour of the Climate Change Act helped bring COP26 to the UK, but it is not enough for Ministers to point to the Glasgow summit and hope that this will carry the day with the public. Leadership is required, detail on the steps the UK will take in the coming years, clarity on tax changes and public spending commitments, active engagement with people and businesses across the country. These steps are essential, so people can see opportunity in climate-positive choices. We cannot rely on goodwill alone. This demands a step change in Government action, but it is hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen in the last 12 months,” were just the opening few sentences of its report to parliament.

Lord Deben, the Committee’s chair, was even more direct in the press conference for the report’s launch. He gave the government nine out of 10 for climate commitments but “somewhere below four” for delivery.

“They need to step up very rapidly. We have to have a net zero strategy before COP26,” he said. “If we don’t have that then it will be very difficult to make COP26 stand up because everyone is looking for action and delivery not just for promises.”

Chris Stark, the Committee’s chief executive, was blunter: “Targets are not going to be achieved by magic. Surprisingly little has been done so far to deliver on them.” The UK was not on track to meet its carbon budgets and its 2030 emissions target, he added. “That is not a great place to be for the UK to be as COP President.”

Stark identified a number of issues which the government was avoiding. It had, for example, failed to engage the public on politically difficult issues like diet change or limiting flying. In March 2021, the finance minister froze air taxes on short-haul flights and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ruled out meat or carbon taxes on consumers.

He criticised the government for failing to even go after “low hanging fruit” such as strengthening design standards for new and existing houses to make them energy efficient and suitable for the changing climate in the UK.

The vast bulk of the UK’s impressive emissions reduction over recent decades has come from significantly decarbonising electricity generation. Transport is the UK’s biggest emitting sector. Sales of electric vehicles have increased. But so have sales of bigger, more polluting cars.

The committee recommends taxing flying so that it costs more than the train, installing electric vehicle chargers and encouraging walking, cycling and public transport.

On agriculture and land use, Stark said progress was “woeful”. The CCC recommends policies to adapt farming to climate change and improve awareness and skills in sustainable farming, forestry and peatland management.

The government’s response was highly defensive: “Any suggestion we have been slow to deliver climate action is widely off the mark.” But the steep reduction in emissions it cited were largely in the electricity sector; and the progress policies it cited are only scheduled for publication later this year.

To which, Ed Miliband, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, replied: “This report lays bare for all to see the yawning chasm between government climate rhetoric and the greenwashing reality. The message from the CCC is clear – it is telling the government enough phony promises, vacuous boosterism, and empty photo opportunities. This is the decisive decade and we cannot afford the Conservatives’ complacency, inaction and lack of direction.”

The Confederation of British Industry, long a champion of business-led climate responses, weighed in too. “The Committee’s report rightly demands that the UK’s net zero ambitions are matched by world-leading action. The climate crisis is worsening and currently we’re way off track. Gaps in the policy landscape must be filled with urgency,” said Rain Newton-Smith, its chief economist.

The CBI’s Seize the Moment economic plan, released in May, identifies six key ways to remake the economy and drive green growth towards net zero emissions in a bid to realise “a decade of better economic growth and social solidarity” in the wake of a decade of austerity measures, Brexit-related disruption, and the coronavirus crisis.

Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group of business climate leaders said:

“The only way the UK can credibly protect its economy from climate risks and get on track for achieving net zero emissions is by making climate change a top priority for all government departments and supporting this with detailed and timely policy plans. The Progress Reports from the Climate Change Committee show that this is clearly not the case at present.

“This parliamentary term is critical for meeting the UK’s climate and adaptation targets and doing so in a way that delivers supply chain growth and job creation across the country. The extent to which the UK can minimise the costs and maximise the economic opportunities from the net zero transition and adapting to climate change will ultimately depend on the policy decisions that the government makes in the years to come.”

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson established the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth, and Regulatory Reform led by high profile backbench Tory MPs. It reported recently that: “The UK’s commitment to net zero transition demands adoption of transformational new technologies on a scale not seen since the creation of the internal combustion engine. This will require a massive injection of pace, energy, vision and agility into UK regulation.”

Quite simply this barrage of constructive criticism from highly credible organisations is exactly the sort of constructive engagement our Government needs urgently.

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