If we’re to have any shot at keeping a planet worth living on, governmental climate action requires a combination of ambition, nuanced policy and significant amounts of capital. But a fourth ingredient is needed to pull together a workable response to climate breakdown: good governance. Without coordination between every level and facet of government, even the delivery of weak climate policies becomes impossible.
Boris Johnson’s government has been criticised over its climate policies on each of these fronts, most recently when it came to Rishi Sunak’s green recovery package. For scale of aspiration, it has been noted that if this green package reduces 0.5 million tonnes of CO2 as the Chancellor claimed, this accounts for a mere 0.14% of the UK’s carbon emissions. With regard to careful policy, the home insulation announcements (a scheme which will run for just one year) are incomplete, relying on homeowners opting into the programme and covering 1/3 of the cost of energy-saving measures. As energy use in homes account for 14% of UK emissions, much more radical state intervention is required. Funding-wise, the value of Rishi Sunak’s “green budget” is small both compared to other countries (£3 billion in contrast to Germany’s €40 billion) and in contrast to their own manifesto commitment of £9.2 billion for energy efficiency.
But recent announcements also denote a deeper chaos in government and, at root, an absence of overarching strategy. The government’s decarbonisation target (net-zero by 2050) is too late to amount to climate justice and will bake in warming for decades to come. But under current governance structures, with a dearth of central leadership, even coordinating to reach this distant target seems unachievable.
The fundamental challenge of reaching net-zero emissions is that carbon must be drastically reduced across the board at speed, in every department and every policy.
But government plans are inconsistent – attempts at green measures in one area are cancelled out by carbon-intensive projects in another. As just one example, the £27 billion road building scheme makes a mockery of the recent retrofitting promises. Without policy-by-policy “climate proofing,” the government ramps up carbon in one sector whilst reducing it (however meagrely) in another.
This cognitive dissonance between policies is due to a lack of overarching leadership – a charge that has been laid at Johnson’s door more than once. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have criticised the absence of net-zero ambitions across departments almost annually. The Prime Minister announced the formation of a Cabinet Committee on Climate Change with much pomp last October to coordinate the government climate response, but they have only met once since its foundation.
It’s not the first time Boris Johnson has been missing in action. At the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when time was of the essence, he was absent from the first five Cobra meetings, preferring to spend time in the countryside. Weak central leadership and conflicting climate policy is a hallmark of Johnson’s administration to date.
And decarbonisation cannot wait. July 2019-June 2020 were the hottest twelve months on record, accounting for a 1.39°C rise compared to pre-industrial levels. The CCC has warned that not one sector of the UK economy had yet demonstrated 2°C rise compatibility. We need urgent, sweeping change to slow a rapidly heating planet. The haphazard approach to governance from the Tories means they can’t even fulfil their own distant ambitions.
Carbon budgeting is, theoretically, one of the ways to limit governments and bind them to climate action – ensuring that policies comply with emissions targets. The UK tries to stay within the limits of its carbon budgets in accordance with the 2008 Climate Change Act, monitored by the CCC. However, their advice is non-binding; the government is behind on the majority of its own targets and projected to overshoot its fourth and fifth climate budgets.
In the UK, authority to ensure different departments are on track sits with BEIS, but they lack the necessary policy mechanisms to enforce them. No amount of cross-Whitehall working groups can change course on carbon emissions without ministerial will (and serious funding) to enact change – in many departments, climate targets are simply not a top priority. It means, for example, that Homes England’s 5-year strategy could be published without once mentioning climate measures.
Ireland’s carbon budgeting system is tailored department-by-department, meaning a much closer eye can be kept on compliance and ministers can be held accountable. A similar approach should be taken in the UK, led by strong management from the top. If the Cabinet Committee on Climate Change fails to coordinate and put serious money behind decarbonisation, even the fragile steps towards net-zero by 2050 will be meaningless.
It’s not just the Conservatives who have been accused of lacking a comprehensive approach to climate policy.
Keir Starmer pledged to “hardwire the Green New Deal into everything we do”, but beyond BEIS and the energetic affirmations of Ed Miliband, the term isn’t widely used across the Shadow Cabinet. Without the trappings of the Green New Deal at the forefront of every brief, Labour, too, risk accusations of weak climate governance.
The phrase “Green New Deal” has never been tweeted from the Shadow Defra Twitter account, for example, despite land use and agriculture being a critical arena for climate action. Keir Starmer has mentioned the phrase 4 times. If Labour are to make good on the ambitious promise for a Green New Deal that rapidly decarbonises in a comprehensive manner, it must be a fundamental project of government, with rigorous climate-proofing of every policy.
The scale of change required is colossal. But rather than a well-managed transition that greens our economy, ensuring the wellbeing of people and planet, climate is added as an afterthought to government policy – if it is thought about at all.
Although governance structures are just one plank in decarbonisation efforts, they are fundamental to the success of any project. If real efforts are to be made to fulfil even their own climate targets, current governance must be overhauled, ensuring the logic of climate action runs throughout government. And if it isn’t, Labour must hold their feet to the fire.