Bill is no substitute for action

The Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Chris Huhne argues the draft bill is not strong enough to avert climate change, but questions whether there is the political will for a serious plan to reduce emissions.

The draft climate change bill is a step in the right direction. In setting up a climate change committee of experts to assess our progress, it provides a framework for our efforts to curb our carbon emissions in the long march to decarbonising the UK economy. However, the bill is not yet strong enough if it is to help us tackle the greatest challenge of our age.

The bill will go through under Gordon Brown’s premiership, which is a source of worry precisely because the chancellor’s record on climate change is lamentable. As chancellor, Gordon Brown has allowed Green taxes to fall to their lowest level since Margaret Thatcher was in power in 1989. They have fallen from 3.6 per cent of GDP in 1999 to just 2.9 per cent of GDP in 2005. The Treasury and the DTI have continually sought to ensure that environmental objectives are watered down to avoid any conflict with the short-term needs of the business community. So we are likely to face a fight in making it stronger.

The government’s view that annual targets are just too difficult is convenient nonsense. It is just too easy for ministers to set targets against which their efforts can effectively be measured only once every five years, when the typical term of office is only four years. These would be NIMTO targets – Not in My Term of Office targets – and would not be worth the paper they were written on. Providing political cover should not be an aim of this bill, and the Liberal Democrats will continue to press for the committee to make clear the basis on which it will reach its annual assessments. Annual benchmarks or targets make sense.

In the bill as drafted, there is far too much potential for political interference. For example, there are worries about the independence of the members of the climate change committee. Its members should be approved by parliament, not simply appointed by the secretary of state. The secretary of state can also remove members who are “unable or unfit”. This independent committee should be rather more protected from political interference and partisan politics.

Given the recent scientific evidence, the proposed target of 60 per cent proposed cut in carbon emissions by 2050 is on the low side. We should set a much more ambitious yet realistic target of at least 80 per cent. The climate change committee should have a lead in proposing the target, but it is parliament that should adopt or reject it.

The government must also take a lead in ensuring that all departments play their role in ensuring that we have the right framework to tackle this threat. The prime minister must set up a climate change cabinet committee to ensure that a strong cross-departmental focus is put on meeting the targets.

Beyond the climate change bill, though, we will need Labour and the Conservatives to be as brave as the Liberal Democrats in coming up with hard proposals for change: so far, only the Lib Dems have put forward firm plans for greener but not higher taxes, by switching the tax burden from good things like work, risk and effort to bad things like pollution. Without green taxes to shift our cars to lower emission models, and to limit the growth of aircraft greenhouse gas emissions, no climate change policy is worth the name. The Lib Dems have also led the way with proposals for energy efficiency in our homes, and for green electricity generation without reliance on nuclear power.

The climate change bill cannot be a substitute for action. Targets and annual assessments are needed to keep us on track in the long term, but if targets were the way of resolving problems, this would be the best governed country in the world (and it is not). The time for rhetoric has now passed, and serious plans to tackle carbon emissions are overdue.