UK to write carbon cuts into law

Britain became the first country to put forward legally binding national carbon cut targets in the draft climate change bill this week.

The new bill would commit the Governtment to a 60% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and a 20 to 26% target for 2020. The proposed legislation, unveiled on Tuesday, also sets five-year “carbon budgets” that should make it easier to monitor progress towards the goals.

MPs are exposing themselves and future governments to year-on-year scrutiny from the public with a system of annual “open and transparent reporting” to Parliament. A new statutory body, the Committee on Climate Change, is to oversee the whole plan and advise the Government on climate change policy.

Introducing the bill, environment secretary David Miliband said it will demonstrate “leadership through action at home, while also continuing to work towards a strong international agreement post-2012.”

“Crucially the Climate Change Bill, the first of its kind in any country, demonstrates our determination that this leadership role will continue,” he said.

Environmentalists welcomed the proposals, but called for binding year-on-year targets and higher cuts for 2050, and were backed by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone who said the bill should “go further” (see related story).

Friends of the Earth’s director Tony Juniper said: “The UK will be the first country in the world to introduce a legal framework for reducing carbon emissions. But the draft Bill must be strengthened if the UK is to set a global example. It must include bigger cuts in carbon dioxide emissions and make all future governments accountable for their role in delivering these cuts.”

Friends of the Earth called for legislation obliging governments to cut emissions by an average three percent a year.

Giving a legal perspective on the draft bill, Michael Woods, head of the environmental group at law firm Stephenson Harwood, agreed it was genuinely innovative in setting duties on ministers but said that it “needs more teeth.”

“I think the difficult thing will be in terms of enforcement of that duty [on ministers]. More impact will possibly come from the five-year carbon budgets,” he told edie.

“If you’re sitting there thinking that you might still be minister for the environment in five years’ time and you see that colleagues in DTI and transport are coming up with big projects that are going to increase emissions and impact on you meeting your duty, then you might be a little worried,” said Mr Woods, who co-chairs the UK Environmental Law Association’s working party on climate change.

As the law stands, there is “nothing really binding on an on-going basis,” he added – emission figures are open to debate and clauses in the bill allow for targets to be amended in the case of a “significant development in scientific knowledge” or a change in international legislation.

The carbon budgets are part of a wider strategy that places the bill in the context of Britain’s international climate effort and outlines domestic policies designed to fulfill its goals. The Government wants to see people becoming energy producers as well as consumers, and to encourage power suppliers to focus on reducing demand despite the fall in profits this would normally entail for them.

British business, as represented by the CBI, welcomed the draft bill. “British businesses are already cutting emissions but they can do more, and this bill is a big step forward in combining the two things we really need: long-term clarity on policy direction and flexibility in its delivery,” said Richard Lambert, CBI director general.

The bill will next be subjected to public and parliamentary consultation before becoming law next year.

Goska Romanowicz

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