MPs seek urgent review of climate Bill’s target

The draft Climate Change Bill’s target to cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 60% by 2050 should be urgently reviewed, says a report by the House of Commons Environment Committee.1

The report is the first of three from the parliamentary committee relating to the Bill that will appear this summer. A Joint Committee report on the Bill is expected in August, while another, looking at the government’s evaluation of its climate change programme (ENDS Report 388, pp 49-50 ), is due from the Environmental Audit Committee in late July.

The Bill includes targets to cut CO2 emissions from a 1990 baseline by 26-32% by 2020 and 60% by 2050. A new independent statutory body, the Committee on Climate Change CCC), would advise the government on the level of carbon budgets.

  • Targets: The government has rejected calls from environmental groups to raise the target to 80%, arguing a 60% target has business support and is a formidable challenge in its own right (ENDS Report 389, pp 51-52 ).

    But the Committee is torn between accepting the NGOs’ view of what needs to be done and the government’s of what can be done.

    On the one hand it "agrees with the substantial amount of evidence calling for the 2050 target to be higher than 60%".

    The 60% target was originally mooted seven years ago by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on the basis that it would limit the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to 550 parts per million. At the time it was thought this limit would mean the more dangerous impacts of climate change would be avoided. But the Committee says "to limit global mean temperature increases to 2°C (which is now widely agreed to be necessary to avoid some of the more extreme impacts of climate change), the science suggests that concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases should be kept much lower than 550ppm".

    Moreover, the Committee notes that the Environment Department (DEFRA)’s own climate change strategic framework cites the European Commission’s statement that to keep below the 2°C threshold, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases must remain "well below 550ppm CO2e" and industrialised countries would have to cut emissions by 60-80% by 2050.

    Noting that CO2 emissions in 2006 were a mere 5% below 1990 levels, the Committee recognised the 50% target "is still extremely ambitious". But the CCC’s should first "to assess the current state of knowledge regarding climate science in order to determine what the 2050 target should be and the trajectory for achieving it".

    The Bill should also include targets relating to cumulative emissions that address overall budgets to 2020 and to 2050 in terms of tonnes of CO2 equivalent rather than annualised percentage reductions. Because CO2 persists in the atmosphere for many years, the real determinant of the severity of climate change is not emissions in 2050, but total cumulative emissions by that date. The larger the earlier cuts, the smaller the cumulative emissions.

  • Carbon budgeting: Unlike environmental groups, the Committee accepts the case for five-year budgetary periods, but wants "clear annual milestones" set and published by the CCC so a policy’s effectiveness would become apparent well before the end of a budgetary period.

    The Bill’s provision allowing budget amendments more than a year after the end of a budgetary period should be removed because it "makes a nonsense of the concept of budgetary periods, and would render any sanctions completely unworkable".

  • Carbon credits: The report notes the regulatory impact assessment accompanying the Bill suggests mitigation costs could be cut by 25% if a third of the effort was met by buying overseas credits. But it says buying such credits "should only be exercised as a last resort" and should be "strictly limited to a quantifiable amount to be advised by the CCC".

    Enforcement: Although the Bill’s sanctions - opening the government to judicial review for failing to meet targets or budgets - "may not be either likely or real", the Committee accepts the Bill would increase political pressure to achieve them and subject the government of the day to "the court of public opinion".

    But if a target is missed, a parliamentary debate on a remedial action plan should be held on an amendable government motion after the government’s response to the CCC’s annual progress report is published.

  • The CCC: The report accepts the CCC’s main task should be to advise on carbon budgets and it should not be a policy-making or delivery body. But the government should be required to accept its recommendations without further debate, just as it accepts interest rate decisions from the Monetary Policy Committee.

    The Bill does not seem to prevent the CCC from recommending the 2020 and 2050 targets, but nor is it clear it will have this power. Therefore the CCC "should be required to review and recommend what the targets should be by 2009, and should be given the power to make recommendations at any time regarding the targets".

    It should also have the resources necessary to develop its own emissions forecasting model, rather than relying on the energy model used by the former Department of Trade and Industry.

  • Trading schemes: To "avoid confusion" with the recent energy White Paper, which says allowances under the new trading scheme for commercial and public sector organisations are to be auctioned, the Bill’s requirement for allowances to be allocated free should be removed.
  • Aviation and shipping: The Bill’s targets exclude emissions from international aviation and shipping but provision is made for their inclusion later if agreement is reached on international reporting practice. But the Committee says the CCC should have to report on such emissions, whether or not they are counted as part of the statutory targets, to inform its recommendations on budgets and targets which will affect all other sectors.

    Environmental groups point out the UK already submits data on international bunker fuel emissions to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and there is little prospect of an imminent international agreement on reporting. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research warns that if such emissions are considered, the 60% target equates to an atmospheric concentration of 600-750ppm and a 50% chance of a global temperature increase exceeding 4°C.

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