Slow progress puts Grayling on the naughty step
By Richard Black, ECIU Director
Lord Deben, who chairs the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), is likely to praise Chris Grayling to the skies on Thursday when he presents the Committee’s annual progress report to Parliament.
By advocating that the UK introduce a carbon price rising to £330 per tonne, Mr Grayling is backing what virtually every climate change economist believes to be the single most effective tool at a government’s disposal for accelerating decarbonisation.
Didn’t you know Mr Grayling supports such a carbon tax? Somewhat astonishingly, he neglected to mention it in his many statements this week on the proposed new runway at Heathrow Airport. But he clearly does support it – on Monday’s Today Programme he was asked four questions about the climate change impact of the new runway, and maintained every time that it was perfectly compatible with the UK’s legally-binding climate change targets, citing the Airports Commission’s analysis.
…which says that it’s only compatible if the UK has a carbon price rising to £330 per tonne in 2015.
That’s a higher carbon price than most countries have or are contemplating. Sweden’s currently runs at £110/tonne, British Columbia’s nearer £20 but increasing annually.
So presumably Mr Grayling will win double points for thinking well beyond the UK’s current target of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050, to the new commitment that the government is likely to make next year, of cutting emissions all the way to net zero. Of supporting a carbon tax big enough to aid that deep decarbonisation.
Lord Deben is doubtless honing his paeans of praise right now.
Down to Earth
Well; that was a nice flight of fancy.
Back in the real world… Parliament’s decision to back the new Heathrow runway – and indeed the government’s support for it – neatly illustrates the fact that regularly, departments other than that of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are making decisions with climate change implications that take little notice of legally-binding carbon budgets.
That, clearly, is massively important for the CCC’s annual assessment of progress to meeting those budgets. And nowhere is it more important than in transport, now the biggest source of UK emissions and the only one where they are rising.
If the Heathrow vote came too late for inclusion in the actual report, one can be fairly sure that the Department for Transport will receive a verbal rollicking – not so much for backing the new runway, but for declining to engage seriously with the climate change aspect of the project. The CCC has already expressed its ‘surprise’ that Mr Grayling failed to mention the Paris Agreement when making a statement to the House earlier this month.
A further keel-hauling can be anticipated over non-delivery of the ‘Road to Zero’ strategy, which was originally due out over a month ago and which is still trapped in a shuttle between departments. The only time it popped its head up recently was in a suggestion that DfT wanted to water it down so ‘zero’ becomes ‘not zero’ – transforming the plan to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles (and maybe hybrids) by 2040 into a less impressive-sounding ‘mission’.
The DfT’s record on both airports and cars is likely to see Mr Grayling placed on top of the CCC’s naughty step.
In January, the Committee published its official response to the government’s Clean Growth Strategy. And although it found plenty to praise, it noted repeatedly that the UK is not currently decarbonising quickly enough to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. It said that the government needed to set out new policies by the end of this year that would be adequate to meet the fourth, covering the period 2023-27.
So far – six months through the year – we have seen no new decarbonisation policies emerge. At all.
The government has reduced the uncertainties around delivery of some plans – the new nuclear power station at Wylfa is quite a big exmple. But in other areas, notably transport, reverse gear seems just as popular as the accelerator.
One of the committee’s mantras is: ‘do what we know works cost-effectively.’ Thus, this week’s report is likely to bring frustration over the lack of a route to market for onshore wind power – a technology that just 2% of the population ‘strongly opposes’, and which is now the cheapest form of new electricity generation. Frustration too about the absence of effective energy efficiency policies for homes and businesses. And about what the Committee feels is a tentative approach to carbon capture and storage – a technology likely to prove crucial for decarbonising industries such as cement and chemicals.
On land use, it’s a more mixed picture. Michael Gove’s Defra has made a good job – at least rhetorically – of squaring the circle between needing to enhance nature conservation while also facilitating food production. But climate change adds the necessity to secure carbon in soil and peatland, and increase uptake through tree planting. It is not clear yet that Defra has its head around this part of the coming decades’ triple challenge.
The committee may also reflect on opportunities being lost across government. For example, the Communities Department has just launched a new support package to increase ‘affordable’ and council housing in the southeast of England. The blurb makes clear that one of the aims is ‘to ease the burden of rent on hard working families’. The burden could be eased by ensuring that the occupants of these new homes will pay low energy bills. Yet the prospectus for the scheme doesn’t mention the terms ‘energy’, ‘insulation’ or ‘EPC’.
Altogether, I would be very surprised if the CCC’s central message isn’t along these line: Keep it simple, stupid. Join the dots. Get on with things. Apply the central lesson of the last decade – with policy certainty comes investment and cost reductions. And apply them right across government in a Cabinet where each minister pilots his/her department towards decarbonisation, with no passengers.
That way the UK will reach its destination in economic safety, with no chance of a crash landing.