The government’s plan to meet its emissions reductions targets will soon finally see the light of day. Here, ClientEarth’s climate lawyer Jonathan Church surveys the ups and downs of recent months, and sets out the tests that the new strategy must pass if it is to put UK emissions reductions back on track.
How we got here
In November 2015, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published updated energy and emissions projections for the UK. Its report included a passage on the year ahead:
“The government is currently considering the right approach to reducing emissions over the fourth carbon budget period. After it sets the fifth carbon budget (by the end of June 2016) it will be able to set out more detail about its expectation for how it intends to meet the targets. It will publish a new emissions reduction plan at the end of 2016 which will set out the proposals in full.”
Though the fifth carbon budget was set last year – more or less on time, and in line with the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – little progress has followed in the tumultuous months since. DECC itself lasted only until July 2016 before being merged into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS).
The “emissions reduction plan” shifted shape – first to the Clean Growth Plan and then to the Clean Growth Strategy – as if to disguise the ever-growing wait for publication beyond the initial promise of “the end of 2016”.
In April this year, ClientEarth wrote to Climate Change Minister Nick Hurd to remind him of the government’s legal duty to publish without delay. Days later, the General Election was called. At the end of June, the CCC released its annual progress report to the newly-formed Parliament, demanding that the plan “be published now”.
Nick Hurd’s successor, Claire Perry, at that time announced that the plan would be published following Parliament’s summer recess, a further delay because she was “taking the time to ensure that the draft [plan] could be extended to become more ambitious”.
Now – some nine months overdue – the wait does appear to be over.
As tempting as it will be to greet the Clean Growth Strategy after such a long wait, with a kind of relief, it is important to remember its specific – and legally mandated – purpose: to guide the UK to meeting its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which extend from 2023 to 2032.
The Clean Growth Strategy must succeed in this goal. And we will take the government to task if it falls short.
Industry, civil society, and the CCC will be assessing the sustainability, coherence and cost-effectiveness of the policies put forward in the Strategy. As lawyers, our focus at ClientEarth will be slightly different.
In our Mind the Gap report, we said that the persisting fourth carbon budget ‘policy gap’ – the difference between the emissions reductions needed to hit the fourth carbon budget, and the reductions that current policies will produce – is a legal failure and a clear breach of the Act.
The continued success of the Climate Change Act depends on the government complying with sections 13 and 14 of the Act. These require a plan that sets out a clear intended route to meeting the carbon budgets that have been set. In this respect, the 2011 Carbon Plan – the predecessor of the Clean Growth Strategy – was inadequate.
Once the Clean Growth Strategy is published, the government must transparently assess progress against the Strategy on an ongoing basis and revise it annually to keep it current.
In other words, the Clean Growth Strategy needs to remain a “living document” – as relevant in 2022 as it is today.
Unfortunately, following the publication of the 2011 Carbon Plan, things moved in the wrong direction. The government stopped publishing implementation updates which tracked progress against that plan, and never updated them, despite promising to do so. It’s no surprise then that by 2013, the Carbon Plan was out of date. Since then it has been neither use nor ornament.
The Clean Growth Strategy must succeed where the Carbon Plan failed. If we do not address how we manage climate policy now, then we will miss our future carbon budgets – with serious consequences at home and abroad.
But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating; not just on arrival, but how it guides and drives government policy-making in the years ahead. When it comes to reviving the Climate Change Act, publication of the Clean Growth Strategy – after a long, long, long wait – is only the end of the beginning.