Chair of Climate Change Committee steps down

The new Committee on Climate Change received a blow in May, when its chair, Adair Turner, announced he would be standing down in the new year.

The Committee on Climate Change has not yet been legally established, but its first chair, former CBI director general Lord Turner, has already announced his departure. He will leave the committee in the new year to chair the Financial Services Authority.

In essence, the Treasury has lured Lord Turner away to what it views as a more important and better paid job. That leaves the Environment Department (DEFRA) with the task of finding a high-calibre successor, preferably with a business background.

The news comes at an awkward time for the fledgling committee, which will be given statutory status by the Climate Change Bill now going through Parliament. Its work plan, published last month, revealed it has a heavy workload and tough schedule ahead of it (ENDS Report 400, pp 46-47 ).

It has until December to produce a report setting out its recommendations for the UK’s statutory carbon dioxide emission reductions targets for 2020 and 2050 and the first three of the UK’s five-yearly carbon budgets that run until 2022.

The committee must also decide whether the targets should include other greenhouse gases and include the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions.

Other recommendations will address the extent to which overseas emission reductions can be used to meet UK targets, and the relative contributions of emitters covered by the EU emissions trading scheme (EUETS) and those outside it.

It will need a firm hand on the tiller to keep its work on-track and to schedule.

DEFRA said it was discussing with Lord Turner whether he could have a continuing role in the committee’s work. Other committee members hoped any disruption caused by his departure could be minimised.

"It’s hugely regrettable. He was just about perfect for the job: he understands climate change and is enthusiastic," said economist Sam Fankhauser. "The mitigating factor is that he will stay on until the spring, and there’s at least a chance he will stay on the committee, so we might not lose him completely."

Energy expert Professor Jim Skea, director of the UK Energy Research Centre, said he was disappointed Lord Turner was having to step down, but "the fact he’s going to be around until after we submit our report and for the government’s response is a redeeming factor. The work of the committee is going to be heavily front-loaded."

But Lord Turner’s departure is still problematic. In an interview with ENDS in May, he said some key decisions, such as whether to include other greenhouse gases in the targets and what to do about international aviation and shipping, may well slip beyond December.

The committee might reach a judgment that it is right in principle on other greenhouse gases by December, he said. But it might leave the decision over which gases to include and their targets to a later report, when there should be a better understanding of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture.

Lord Turner painted a similar picture for aviation and shipping emissions: to include them in principle, although more work is needed to decide how to include them. He also thinks shipping could be a tougher nut to crack than aviation.

"At the European level, if there’s a clear framework arising for aviation, we could say that’s fine, let’s just copy into that for our domestic target." But the complexities of international sea freight and the slow progress at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) rules out this approach for shipping (ENDS Report 399, pp 43-44 ).

Lord Turner also acknowledged that proposals to replace the current system of national caps in the EUETS with a singe EU-wide cap from 2013, limits the scope for UK action to cut industrial emissions covered by the trading scheme. He said extra UK measures would be offset by increased emissions elsewhere in Europe because total emissions would always match the cap (ENDS Report 400, pp 32-35 ).

"The extent to which the European commitments constrain the space we operate in is really quite significant," said Lord Turner. "It’s not just the EUETS, it’s renewable energy as well."

But he stopped short of saying UK targets should be framed only in terms of the non-EUETS emissions.

He also said that using emission-reduction credits from beyond the EU could only be an interim measure because it is likely that by 2050 all emission reductions will have to be achieved within the UK’s borders.

He reasons that by then, large developing countries will also be cutting their emissions and will not be in a position to sell many reductions. He also thinks that most of the cheap cuts will have been made by 2050 and the economic case for credits will have weakened.

"By 2050, China will have come quite a long way towards income convergence with us. In that event, I cannot see a reason for believing that China in 2050 will have lower abatement costs than we will: it’s power stations will have the same power technology as ours; it’s cars will have the same emissions standards as ours; and its houses the same insulation, so why would it be cheaper for them to reduce their emissions."

This has implications for the 2020 target and early UK carbon budgets. If the long-term target is assumed to depend almost entirely on domestic effort, the committee will want to put the UK on a downward trajectory to meet that target without reliance on foreign credits.

Whoever replaces Lord Turner will have to be both politically astute and tough enough to push the committee’s advice with a sometimes reluctant government.

Lord Turner’s vision was for the committee to do more than just set targets and monitor progress. It would form a view of which sectors should face the most cuts and what measures should be employed.

He said he expected the committee’s annual reports to review the performance of the government’s climate measures to identify those which are not working and need extra attention.

"There’s going to be a sectoral analysis and commentary on what the latest [emissions] figures are telling us about the dynamics of particular sectors," he explained. This would highlight "which policies are working and where the government is going to have to intensify or change policy".

He said he wanted the committee to ensure governments and their opposition face up to the challenge of climate change and take action needed, even if it is uncomfortable electorally. "We have to play a role in making it difficult for government to avoid decisions it might want to avoid," he said.

It remains to be seen whether his successor will have the same willingness to champion the fight against climate change.