Call my bluff

A cross-party consensus on climate change is desirable but it has to mean something, says Tony Gray

Preventing dangerous climate change will require deep cuts in UK emissions. Solutions will have to transcend governments of different persuasions. Opposition parties have proposed a cross-party consensus on climate change, with an independent body to set binding emission-reduction targets and monitor progress. It sounds great, but as it stands the proposal is deeply flawed.

Countries such as the UK can and should have targets that go beyond the legal minimum to set a good example. The government should be held to account by parliament and people for meeting such targets.

Climate change is a global problem requiring a global solution. The UK is responsible for about two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and cannot solve the problem unilaterally. For this reason, legally binding, national emission-reduction targets only make sense as part of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).

Setting binding emissions targets is not merely a technical exercise. It is also a deeply political one. The most authoritative independent body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), does not set policy or recommend targets. It sets out scenarios on the best available scientific evidence but does not choose between them because that requires value judgements. These are judgements about the human and ecological costs of climate change on the one hand and the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change on the other. It is the role of governments to make these judgements informed by the best scientific evidence.

Targets are no substitute for real measures to reduce emissions. Until recently, the Conservatives' only hard policy on climate change was to abolish the Climate Change Levy (CCL) on business, thus increasing CO2 emissions. They have recently adopted the Institute for Public Policy Research's proposal to reform the CCL into a carbon tax rather than an energy tax, thus improving its effectiveness. The Conservatives' support for a target to reduce emissions from new cars is also welcome. However, making it happen will need regulation at EU level backed by tax incentives at national level, such as higher road tax on gas-guzzlers.

The independent body that the opposition parties propose is supposed to "advance measures to achieve year-on-year cuts in emissions". Exactly how it would do this is unclear. It could set the cap on emissions for UK power stations and heavy industry under the EU ETS. But it makes little sense to do that in isolation from what other EU countries do and the cap would not cover emissions from households and transport, which are the fastest growing areas. It could set the rates of fuel tax or the CCL or impose new carbon taxes but that would usurp the democratic role of the Chancellor.

Instead, real consensus should start with building on the Kyoto Protocol and the EU ETS, combined with seeking international agreement on a long-term climate stabilisation goal such as the EU's target to limit global warming to 2 C.

Cross-party consensus on climate change is desirable, but not on any terms. An independent body with an ill-defined remit is a bluff. The central role of the EU must be recognised.

Tony Grayling is an associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

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