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It is time to set a “real” carbon budget

Pledges need to be backed by legally binding actions.

By James Thornton

The most pressing global question is this: can we deliver on the Paris Agreement? Over 100 countries have pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.

But it is easy for politicians to make promises for 30 years hence. What faith can we have in these pledges? When you look for the detail of countries’ plans for getting to net zero, there is not yet much to see.

Yet the health of the human community depends on fulfilling these pledges. What would a reliable mechanism to turn them into reality look like?

The Paris Agreement relies on each country to come up with its own plan, and to design its own legal framework to realise it.

In the UK, there is the Climate Change Act. In many ways it is a good model. It appoints a Climate Change Committee, a group of experts who write a carbon budget to set the trajectory toward net-zero. The act makes the budget set by the committee “legally binding” on the government. So far so good.

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In an ideal world, a “legally binding” obligation would see the government hitting the numbers the experts set. Is the government doing so? The answer is no. The Climate Change Committee recently found that the government is significantly behind where it is obliged to be.

What would a carbon budget have to look like for the government to be compelled to follow it? What, in other words, would a “real” carbon budget look like?

A real carbon budget would constrain government action in the same way as the red box Budget.

Under the Climate Change Act, the expert committee recommends five-year carbon budgets leading to carbon neutrality in 2050. Although these recommendations are called “legally binding”, the law provides no mechanism to bring them squarely into the government’s business. To be effective, they would need to sit within every major decision-making process.

Parliamentary oversight of whether the carbon budget is being met is now limited, broken up into a number of committees and not joined up. Nor is there a way for citizens to go to court to hold the government to its legal obligation. When an obligation is said to be “legally binding” but is unenforceable, it is easy to ignore.

If the carbon budgets actually set a limit that controlled government decisions we would see the UK’s emissions reduce in a predictable way. This could be achieved by taking the existing five-year carbon budgets set by the Climate Change Committee and using them to generate annualised “real” carbon budgets.

These real carbon budgets would be binding in much the same way as the annual financial Budget. The government would thus check all its policy proposals against two separate budgets: the annual financial Budget and the real carbon budget.

Every year, the Treasury sets a budget, which the Chancellor presents to the House of Commons. To construct the Budget, the government makes tough decisions and trade-offs because it cannot afford unconstrained spending.

We know how to take financial planning systematically into all government decisions. We need to be as responsible with carbon emissions as we are with finances. We need to account for carbon emissions, and take account of them, in parallel fashion.

There is a learning curve here: governments have simply not yet learned to be as rigorous with carbon planning as with financial planning.

In a way, this is not surprising. The Paris Agreement is only five years old. The notion that we need to have a rigorous, centralised decision-making process for all carbon emissions that is as binding as the financial budget is new too. Such a process is not in place in any country. What would it look like?

With real carbon budgets the government would have an amount of emissions to use in any given period, and would be constrained from making decisions that overshoot that amount. The projected emissions (both direct and indirect) of all government decisions at the national, regional and local level would have to be added up and projected against real carbon budgets. All major planning decisions would be included, like a third runway at Heathrow, or a decision to build a new gas-fired power plant. All regulatory decisions would be included too, such as how much carbon the agricultural and industrial sectors can emit.

A real carbon budget would set the overall emissions limit. But it would not prohibit individual decisions. If the government chose to build a piece of carbon-intensive infrastructure, such as a new gas-fired power plant, it could do so. But there would be a trade-off: it would have to find reductions elsewhere to compensate. This kind of discipline, so familiar with financial budgets, does not yet exist when it comes to carbon.

New decision-making systems will be needed in government. This procedural evolution is not a downside of the proposal. It is the whole point. Unless we have such new ways of bringing carbon accounting routinely into all aspects of government decision-making, our governance framework will not learn to be as responsible with carbon as it is with money.

Parliamentary oversight needs to be beefed up. It is crucial that parliament has the chance to debate the carbon budget and accompanying strategy proposed by government, as it does the financial budget.

Crucially, the real carbon budget must be enforceable by citizens in court. Otherwise, it could wind up being another unenforceable and easily ignored obligation. Courts are well equipped to decide such cases, with climate-related cases being comfortably decided around the world.

The UK Climate Change Act was world-leading when passed. But the government is not meeting the obligations it lays down. There is a cure. If the UK were to decide to adopt a truly binding system of carbon budgeting, it could approach Cop26 in Glasgow in a position of genuine international climate leadership. It could invite other countries to join in this most practical of all steps to turn Paris commitments into tangible results.

James Thornton is the chief executive officer of ClientEarth

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