Climate Change Act : "The carbon budget gives long term certainty"

Lord Deben chairs the Climate Change Comittee in Britain. He talks about the advantages of the Climate Change Act, and about the need to bring long term certainties into the short term political business of democracies.

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John Gummer, Lord Deben, chairs the climate change comittee since September 2012. He was the longest serving State Secetary for the Environment. During the BSE-crisis he was resposible for the Ministry of Agriculture.
John Gummer, Lord Deben, chairs the climate change comittee since September 2012. He was the longest serving State Secetary for...Foto: Andrew Parsons/xi-images

Lord Deben, did the Climate Change Act in the United Kingdom meet the expectations?

It does exactly, what you would expect. People welcomed the Climate Change Act with very considerable support. It passed the House of Commons in 2008 with probably the largest majority we ever had. It was a very successful act. It was created by the opposition. It was an all party act and started off with the support of all the political parties. But of course we knew that people welcomed that in principle. But when it came closer to taking the concrete decisions we made, then there are always those who want to water those decisions down. So we are beginning to see the strength of the act. Because it was designed to make sure that the short term political demands would not overcome the long term imperatives which climate change gives us.

If you would want to explain the biggest advantage of the Climate Change Act to a German parliamentarian. What would you say?

The most important thing is that it gives long term certainty. People know what the carbon budget is up to 2027 - not only the next five years. Next year, we start to define the carbon budget,which will run from 2027 to 2032. They know the budget we have to meet. And they also know the end point which we have to get to, because we have a legally binding aim to reduce carbon emissions till 2050 up to 80 percent compared to 1990. There is a context in which business and the community can operate. They don't have to rely on the fact that after the next election there might be a different government, which might have different ways to do things - who might decide that it would be populist to put these things off. So you can't have a situation like in Australia, for example, where a sensible programm against climate change has been replaced by a government which is in denial.

The Climate Change Act protects the climate policy from the moods in the public and in parliament?

Yes it does. And it does it by ensuring, that you have actually to repeal the whole Act if you were to make changes. It is very carefully balance, to make people face up to the reality of the decision you have to make. What normally would happen is that a government faced with a difficult economical situation would say: "Well we'd better do less now or try to slow things down. We always could make it up later." And we all know, what that means: You try to get the benefit from not paying your dues know, by leaving it to somebodyelse to pay later. It stops that erosion, which is so easy in a democratic structure.

What is your impression of the current government? From afar it does not look very ambitious in the climate debate.

Nuclear power is an expensive but carbon-neutral way

I think that is a wrong impression. First there is the ambitious European Union. And then, in a time of extreme economic difficulty they have provided 7.6 billion pounds for the decarbonisation of the power system between now and the year 2020. They have used a whole raft of policies, which have been adventureous, one has to say. Of course, three things happen. Those of us, who are of the opinion, that climage change is a pressing issue, have put constantly pressure on the government. Secondly, there are matters of consensus and matters of political argument. If you have a consensus, things can slow up. And thirdly, there is a perfectly reasonable disagreement about how you bring together the two needs, how to get the energy that is neccessary and the other is to decarbonize. And of course, that is not easy. Germany does not like it. But the government has comitted itsself to nuclear power, which is an expensive way, but it is a carbon-free way. I think the government is very much supporting the Climate Change Act. But I am always pressing for tougher steps, not least because this is a very big achievement throughout.

How does the Climate Change Comittee work?

The Comittee lays down the budgets. Parliament has to accept the budget. But if they don't accept it, they have to put together an alternative, that has to keep Britain on track for the 2050 target. They cannot breach that. Once the budget is passed like the fourth budget has been passed, we can review the budget, which we have just done. The report will be published in early December. But we have to review it in the terms of the Act. We cannot redo it in a more general sense. We have to establish if circumstances have changed, and if the budget needs to be tightened or loosened. If we propose that the basis has not sufficiently changed, the budget cannot be changed. Government can only change the budget on the advice of the Climate Change Comittee, which gives us a very strong position. If we recommend a change, the government does not have to do that. But if we don't see a basis for change, it cannot be changed. And we have a regular monitoring role to see, if Britain is meeting it's budgets. We do that every year in a report to parliament. But every four years we produce a more fundamental report. That will be done next year. We already have given notice, that some things, that have been tried work not satisfactorily and others are but need to be extended. The government has to commend that, and it will be interesting, because it is the first major assassment.

When is the next election in Britain?

2015.

So the debate will fall into the election campaigns?

It will make it very difficult for people to avoid coming to terms with that. Politics is often to much meeting the headlines of today. You have to find a way, that human beings will not be shortsighted. Human beings are fundamentally flawed, when it comes to short term advantages and long term needs.

You're talking about pension funds.

That is a good example. If we were talking theologically, it would have something to do with original sin.

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