The latest draft of the Climate Change Bill may be riddled with unclear and insufficient targets for carbon reduction, but its defenders across all parties agreed that it’s the best option at the moment for meeting the ambitious 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions promised by Gordon Brown last year.
The issues were debated by Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, Conservative spokesman Peter Ainsworth, Lib Dem Steve Webb, and Friends of the Earth (FoE) director Tony Juniper at a joint FoE/Evening Standard event in central London on 22 April.
The bill has been amended by the House of Lords, and will be put to the Commons within this legislative year.
Juniper praised the bill for its forward-thinking and its intention to significantly cut the UK’s carbon footprint, but criticised the failure to incorporate the latest scientific findings - that an 80 per cent reduction in carbon by 2050 is necessary to forestall the most dire effects of climate change, not 60 per cent, as originally predicted by Lord Stern in his damning environmental report last year.
Hilary Benn defended the 60 per cent target, asserting that the bill allowed for flexibility on this point. He noted that the Committee on Climate Change, a body of 15 scientists which will be given binding powers to advise and supervise the government’s progress in meeting the target, will have the power to change this target if necessary. “I’d much rather have scientists decide that then politicians,” he said.
But real doubts persist over the bill’s ability to substantially curb carbon emissions while avoiding any mention of the shipping and aviation industry, which are estimated as 6.5 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions. Peter Ainsworth said it was “nonsense to pretend the impacts of aviation and shipping do not exist,” and criticised the government’s plan to fix the problem in the next five years.
The bill also curbs the amount of carbon payments the government may purchase at 30 per cent of all carbon emissions, leaving the UK responsible for 70 per cent of its carbon product. However, because the bill only accounts for carbon emissions and not other harmful greenhouse gases such as nitrogen and methane, the net effect of meeting these targets will not reverse the downward trajectory of global warming.
For all their talk of “people power” and the “court of public opinion,” none of the panellists were willing to entertain the notion of a personal carbon tax, claiming the population was not yet ready for such drastic cuts in their personal consumption. “It makes a huge difference who actually has to make sacrifices,” said Liberal Democrat spokesman Steve Webb. “There are difficult choices to be made, and there’s a danger of turning people off."
Juniper agreed, noting how the climate change movement has done such an effective job scaring the electorate, and now it was time to “show how positive impacts could be good for society and good for the economy.” But he emphasised that, without a commitment to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050, global warming would still be a monumental threat to the UK.