Debate over climate law heats up

Opposition leader David Cameron has called for binding annual carbon cut targets, as the debate over a climate change law for the UK intensified this week.

With opposition backing a climate change bill and reports that it is to be included in the Queen’s speech on November 15th, discussion has moved on from whether a law should be introduced onto what it should look like in practice.

Environmental groups want binding year-on-year targets, and have now been joined by the Conservatives who call for “proper legislation, not a watered-down measure that fails to set annual targets.”

The opposition’s proposals for the bill, which can be accessed on the Conservatives website, also include “an independent body that can set and adjust [the targets] in the light of changing circumstances.”

Longer term goals have been criticised as ineffective, as proved when the Government admitted it is unlikely to meet its own 2010 carbon cut target of 20% earlier this year.

Tony Blair has said that annual targets would be “very, very difficult to deliver.”

Environmental lawyer Micheal Woods of Stephenson Harwood said that annual targets would provide a much more effective framework for cutting emissions than 10-year goals:

“The Government has already been burnt on that front – they realise that if they set yearly targets they will constantly be open to scrutiny, but that’s the whole idea,” he told edie.

“They would prefer targets set on by decade, but that doesn’t provide much on-going information. Changes in weather patterns in the economy would make yearly targets difficult – but there should be means of factoring that in so that at least we know year-on-year what’s happening. Every 10 years isn’t sufficient – the targets need to be much more detailed,” he said.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth welcomed reports of both the Government and the opposition calling for a climate law, but demanded annual cuts averaging at least 3%.

“We are delighted with the growing momentum behind the climate change bill – both the reports that David Miliband will be including a climate change in the Queens speech and the publication of a climate change bill by David Cameron,” Friends of the Earth’s Mike Childs said.

“However we need to be sure that the bill does the job and that means a commitment to reducing the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions by 3 percent year on year.”

The 3% annual cut demand is supported by two-thirds of all MPs, FoE said.

Making the climate bill effectively binding was another concern – the government may not want to open itself to a yearly challenge from Friends of the Earth because it hasn’t met its target.

There is a worry that it will “make the obligations more woolly as it has tended to do over the last years,” Michael Woods said. “The Government has on occasion included sustainable development as a goal, but that’s not actionable in court, it’s far too vague,” he said.

If ministers say they “aim to reach a 10% reduction over the next 5 years” legal action in case of a breach would be very difficult. The Government would have to say it “shall reach” a given target and specify what will happen if it does not. Surcharges on ministers are one option.

“It make take the latter to make a difference. The former is yet another aspirational target which is good for PR and politics but might not make that much difference in practice for the environment,” Michael Woods said.

Earlier this week FoE published data indicating that the UK’s CO2 emissions were at a record high since Labour came to power in 1997, and only 5% below 1990 levels, excluding aviation and shipping. The lack of progress led the Government to back out of self-imposed targets of a 20% cut from 1990 levels by 2010.

If aviation and shipping are factored in total UK emissions have actually risen since 1990, according to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change.

The 20% cuts exceeded Britain’s obligations under the Kyoto protocol, which requires a reduction of 12.5% on 1990 levels for the period 2008-12.

Calls for a UK climate bill come ahead of the Stern review of the economics of climate change, due to be published on Monday. The next steps for the Kyoto protocol will be agreed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, Kenya on November 6-17.

Goska Romanowicz

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