The end of Britain's "invisible transition"
Climate action in Britain is moving into more politically fraught terrain because the next phase of carbon cuts involves front of house decisions about how we heat our home and what kind of car we drive. And these bring with them tricky questions about individual freedoms, who pays for these changes and who benefits.
It may sound odd to suggest the debate hasn't been highly politically charged before now. But, for the best part of 15 years, climate policy in the UK (perhaps more than anywhere else in the world) has been characterised by a strong political consensus.
Just a handful of MPs voted against the UK becoming the first advanced economy in the world to require legally-binding cuts in carbon pollution when the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008. Since then, this consensus hasn't just endured, it has strengthened, along with our climate targets.
It's coming up to two years since net zero emissions by 2050 passed into law with unanimous support. No MP voted against the plan. Indeed, the target was so uncontroversial that when the change was enacted into law it didn't even require a Parliamentary vote. The move followed Parliament's symbolic declaration of a climate emergency a few weeks earlier.
A few years before that, party leaders David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg pledged to work together to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy in an unprecedented cross-party statement, which put the issue off limits during the 2015 election.
Parties have not only agreed on what our climate targets should be and how fast we should transition, but (with a few temporary exceptions: see onshore wind and fracking) they have also united behind the most substantial policy measures. They all backed the coal phase-out, the big expansion in renewable generation, and a continued role for new nuclear power. Most recently, they supported ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and (eventually) taxpayer support for fossil fuel projects overseas.
On the one occasion when the climate consensus looked like it might begin to wobble, during David Cameron’s infamous "cut the green crap" moment, the UK's legal obligations as an EU member signed up to the Renewables Directive prevented major green cuts. Dramatic falls in the price of renewable energy further neutralised any backlash. But we did, in that moment, peer into the abyss of an alternative political debate on climate. As big fiscal choices loom, it's one that could yet come back to haunt us.
Head of the UK's climate committee, Chris Stark, recently described how to achieve a fair transition as "the critical question… almost the only question." He said:
"You can't just legislate your way out of this, and you can't just spend your way out of this… Having established that it's possible to achieve net zero, in the aggregate, relatively cheaply, the question is how you do it fairly?… the impacts we will feel across the economy will vary."
What constitutes a fair approach - who pays what, where, when and how, and what level of government intervention is acceptable - is always going to be an intensely political judgement, whether for practical reasons (based on the nature of a party’s electoral coalition and where it’s trying to win votes) or for ideological reasons (such as its views on the role of the state and the right approach to tax-and-spend).
Boris Johnson has decided to try and own the green agenda. This is a big departure from the days when Cameron preferred to blame the Lib Dems to justify climate policies to critical backbenchers. (As I wrote last time, this is largely because of the synergy Johnson sees between net zero and his ”levelling up” (and international) agenda but it also reflects a growing confidence in Tory ranks about the breadth of its appeal.)
But Labour's Ed Miliband has criticised the government for being “stuck in the past”; too willing to leave it up to the free market and, “allergic to the kind of industry support and intervention that is required”.
Some may welcome this more politically charged debate. As Daniel Judt wrote:
"The advantages of the UK’s hypertechnocratic approach to climate politics become limitations. The CCC is an institution built to generate consensus not by working through questions of climate justice but by setting them aside. Unless instructed otherwise, it will attempt to isolate the technical elements of climate change from the political ones and leave the latter untouched."
I don't think it's fair to criticise the CCC, constrained as it is by its mandate while being admirably upfront about the limitations of its advice. Experts advise, politicians decide. But Judt is right in forewarning that the UK's approach of an "invisible transition" - which has, to date, secured the fastest pace of decarbonisation of any country in the world - cannot survive in its current form. As we await the Treasury's (once again delayed?) report into how to pay for net zero, certain newspapers and MPs are circling.
Conservative MP, Rob Halfon, widely respected for his campaigns to keep costs low for households, argued in The Telegraph, "There should be a cost of living indicator for every environmental measure to make sure it does not disproportionately impact the lower paid."
Sunday Times' Rob Colville, who co-authored the Conservative election manifesto, signalled that self-proclaimed "Brexit hard man" Steve Baker MP is planning a "crusade" over the costs associated with going green.
We're already seeing tabloid stories about dodgy old Treasury forecasts on levels of investment needed to meet climate goals, the death of the non-existent "sausage tax", and a spotlight on whether low-income drivers will be able to benefit from the switch to electric cars.
The Times used its lead editorial to argue that any new carbon taxes should be revenue neutral to keep costs down, and the FT's Peter Foster wrote a big feature exploring other options. The Shadow Chancellor suggested Labour would not necessarily back carbon taxes going up, and of course, Rishi Sunak's budget put a freeze on both fuel duty (for the 11th year) and the carbon tax (for the 3rd year). As I write, a new row is brewing over cuts to flight taxes.
For now, the difficult choices have been kicked down the road. As David Cameron's former policy chief Camilla Cavendish wrote in the FT, "The paucity of green policy in the Budget was almost as surprising as the scale of fiscal intervention".
Ultimately, all of this underscores the need for a much deeper understanding of the precise distributional impacts of different climate solutions, to both better inform the political debate and allow us to root out or mitigate against any options that fail a fairness and living standards test. It isn't just the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do. Only fair policies will survive contact with the real world of democratic electoral politics, irrespective of who is in power. The climate consensus we've enjoyed in British politics can hold - but only if policy-makers, and the rest of us, get this right.
Many expect the Chancellor to begin to grip questions about the balance between grants, regulations, tax breaks and charges in the Treasury's net zero review. Sector by sector decarbonisation strategies on transport, heating, industry and land use, tied together by an overarching net zero plan, are also meant to arrive before COP26.
Influential Conservative thinker, Rachel Wolf, has suggested we could see a whole series of "Build Back Better" moments through the Queen's Speech, the Comprehensive Spending Review, and the next budget. Let's hope so because, without them, many people will begin to conclude all the hype about a green recovery was, well... just that.
Thanks for writing this. Agree that the trade offs are coming more clearly into view, the government will find it harder to match up to their warm words and rhetoric. I think you are perhaps a bit generous when it comes to the previous consensus though. I agree that compared with the US and Australia we have been mercifully spared of the worst elements and the fact the CCC and carbon budgets have survived a decade of Tory rule is something to feel relieved about but from 2015 onwards I would argue that things went sharply backwards. Onshore wind was essentially banned, zero carbon homes standard scrapped, solar industry was nearly strangled at birth and not a single new policy was initiated beyond the long-term, aspirational stuff. I also think the cross party declaration was far more limited. At the time the conservative party was 'all in on fracking' and phasing out coal (along with the development of the capacity market) was policy designed to create space in the grid mix for a fresh generation of gas and nuclear rather than genuine climate consensus. The success we have had is mostly down to the survival of offshore wind (again something we should be relieved about given what happened to support for onshore renewables) and the retirement of ancient coal plants that were destined for retirement either way. I briefly thought that things had changed and the current leadership were genuinely committed to the climate change cause and had realised the scale of the crisis but ever since the budget was announced Im now questioning that and setting expectations very low.
A frequent flyer tax could be effective and equitable. But a Conservative government will be unlikely to implement one as it would affect their donor class. I don't really see a Johnson government being much use on the consumption side.