Climate change bill: A closer look

The government's draft climate change bill was well received but has since been more critically scrutinised. Barrie Clarke of Water UK looks at its six main policy changes

In June, the government published its draft climate change bill for consultation. It is intended as a framework for moving to a low-carbon economy and being promoted as “the first of its kind in any country”. It was widely praised at first but views have become more mixed as people looked at specific clauses and fit with overall climate strategy.

Two parliamentary committees have opined already. A joint Lords and Commons committee speaks of a “groundbreaking” bill, whose enforceability will stretch the boundaries of domestic law and government/parliament relations. One question is the authority of the proposed independent Committee on Climate Change: will it be sufficient for the job, which it compares to that of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee? The Commons environmental audit select committee is also on the case. Its members recognise a need “to depoliticise the consideration of potentially necessary but controversial measures”.

In short, we are left in no doubt. Politically, climate change is very big potatoes.

Fortunately (and with due modesty) the water industry understood this some years ago. If you are moving into unknown scientific and legal territory, you need the best available research. Hence the detailed UKWIR climate change research programme (1). Covering a mass of water resource and drainage impacts, the projects strongly underpin the credibility of the industry’s response to the draft bill (2).

The bill proposes six main policy changes. First, government will set targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Water UK supports the principle, but argues that sector-specific factors must be recognised. For example, a 1990 baseline would be particularly challenging. Since then, use of energy to meet water quality directives has almost doubled the size of the industry’s carbon footprint. Companies also think targets and other mechanisms should not be confined to CO2 but cover other greenhouse gases, which are important for the industry and many times more potent.

Second, five-year carbon budgets. This is controversial. Critics demand annual targets. But Water UK believes that flexibility is needed to take account of short-term surges in energy demand, for example more pumping in very dry or wet periods.

Besides, the water industry already works on broadly five-year cycles and has

the support of all stakeholders in promoting a much longer-term overall strategy.

Third, the aforementioned independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) set up to advise the government on its targets and how to achieve them. Again, the industry is supportive. An expert analytical body should stop multiple initiatives from obscuring clear policy. But Water UK shares the doubts about its status. As a statutory body, it may not be ignored, which is something. Yet the challenge of preventing dangerous climate change may require something more; just as ten years ago the perceived need to get to grips with inflation was sufficient to justify giving independence to the Bank of England.

Fourth, the government is seeking powers that will enable it to start new carbon-trading schemes. Water UK sees the sense but emphasises that consultation will be everything. This is apparent even now. Present policy is to extend incentives by bringing in a carbon reduction commitment for non-energy-intensive organisations. It would capture water companies even though the sector is one of the highest users by volume (a fact currently under discussion).

Fifth, the CCC will hold the government to account through “open and transparent” annual reports on progress towards targets and carbon budgets. No dispute here either. Government puts itself in the firing line, though it must be said we have been here before, for example with the Sustainable Development Commission’s reports on policy and delivery. “The what?” you ask. Exactly!

Finally, adaptation. The government will report every five years on the impacts of climate change and adaptation policy. Good, but perhaps not good enough. Despite spending many seasons being Rushden & Diamonds to the Manchester United of mitigation, adaptation is just as deserving of the TV millions. Water UK claims there is a need to start thinking about targets for adaptation in all sectors.

1) Reports Catalogue, UK Water Industry Research, September 2006

2) Consultation on the Draft Climate Change Bill, Water UK, June 2007. Download at

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie