There is broad cross-party support for the climate change Bill’s key provisions that set carbon dioxide emission targets for 2020 and 2050. But as the Bill neared the halfway mark of its passage through Parliament, opinion was divided on whether the targets are high enough and if the government’s duty to meet them can be enforced.
The Bill entered the House of Lords in November and was being debated at Report stage as this issue of ENDS Report went to press. Many amendments are being made and the Bill could look quite different by the time it reaches the statute book.
At the time of the debate, clause 1 of the Bill placed a legal duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that both the 2050 and 2020 targets and the five-yearly carbon budgets are met. Failure to do so would open a government to judicial review. But critics say it would be difficult for the High Court to prove the government had failed to meet its duties, and even if it did, the ruling would have no effect because it would come after the target date or budget period (ENDS Report 389, pp 51-52 ).
An amendment proposed by Conservative peer the Earl of Caithness and former chairman of the National Rivers Authority Lord Crickhowell would have extended the duty on the Secretary of State to "promote policies and take measures, including the setting of targets and five-year budgets, best calculated to" ensure the 2050 target is met.
Tory shadow Environment minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach said as the Bill stands, "there is a legal duty to ensure results. That is simply not within the power of the Secretary of State."
Environment Minister Lord Rooker argued that it would be easy to see whether a duty to meet a target had been met because there would be a figure to show how much emissions had been reduced. In contrast "the duty to implement policies is not clear at all."
Instead, government amendments were adopted that place an additional duty on the Secretary of State to "prepare such proposals and policies as the Secretary of State considers will enable the carbon budgets… to be met."
Another amendment tabled by Lords Crickhowell and Caithness proposed that if the annual statement of UK emissions showed that the carbon account for a budgetary period was going to exceed the carbon budget, within three months the government would have to propose policies to ensure the excess was made good in the following budgetary period.
Also, if the final statement for a budgetary period showed that the account had exceeded the budget, the excess would have to be deducted from the budget for the subsequent period. Within three months the government would have to propose policies - which may include the purchase of carbon credits up to the limit advised by the Committee on Climate Change - to ensure that the account did not exceed the revised budget for the budgetary period and took account of the 2050 target.
The Earl of Caithness withdrew the amendment when it became clear that a similar amendment from the government would be adopted. But this only requires corrective action after a budgetary period has ended.
However, Lord Crickhowell told ENDS that at the Bill’s third reading on 31 March, he would again propose changes making the duty which clause 1 places on the government an enforceable one.
Another Tory amendment was voted through that makes it the Bill’s "principle aim" to "ensure that UK greenhouse gas emissions do not exceed the level necessary to contribute to limiting the global average temperate increase to not more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels".
This will have pleased environmental groups, which insist that a 60% cut in CO2 emissions is too low to make this contribution. Researchers at the Tyndall Centre of Climate Change Research have said that when they use the government’s own apportionment model and include emissions from aviation and shipping in the baseline, a 60% cut makes it almost certain than the 2°C limit would be exceeded.
Lord Rooker argued that the words "the level necessary to contribute" were meaningless if the US, China and others decide to make little effort to cut their emissions. No cuts, however big, by the UK would be enough to limit the temperature increase to 2°C.
But Lord Taylor asked why the government felt unable to commit to the target when it was already a target at EU level. And Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Lord Teverson pointed out that, in his first major environmental speech in November, Gordon Brown had described it as an "overriding" mission.
The adoption of the 2°C limit is all the more significant because a Liberal Democrat amendment that would have increased the 2050 target to 80% was defeated. But given Mr Brown’s comments in his November speech that the government’s Committee on Climate Change will be specifically asked to consider the case for an 80% target (ENDS Report 395, pp 56-57 ), it would be a surprise if the committee advised the government to stick with 60%. The committee must give its advice by 1 December.
Another Tory amendment, which required the government to include annual emission targets within each budgetary period, was defeated. The measures were designed to overcome the problem that if there is no accountability within the five-year period, it would be easy for a government to blame its failure to reach a target on its predecessor. However, the government supports the idea of non-binding annual milestones (ENDS Report 397, p 6 ).
The government also pushed through an amendment that changes the 2020 emission reduction target from "at least 26% but not more than 32%" to simply "at least 26%". Lord Rooker said following discussions with business, it was clear that the clarity provided by a single target outweighs any additional certainty that is provided by a range".
He said further policies will need to be introduced in the short and medium terms to guarantee that the 26% target is met, "let alone a higher target".
Another adopted amendments put the duty to meet the targets on the Prime Minister instead of the Secretary of State.