Take climate policy from the UK business department. | Brussels Blog

Take climate policy from the UK business department.

posted by on 6th Jul 2020

Here is one of my submissions to the Labour Party Policy Forum. It argues that climate policy should be taken from BEIS and a new Department of Climate Change should take over this brief.

Climate Change and The Department of
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy


Part 1: The Recent history of UK climate change policy


Climate policy transferred from DEFRA

Before the UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had the responsibility for climate change. At the time of the 2008 act, a new department was created, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). This took over the responsibility for climate change mitigation (i.e. It had the responsibility for minimising the effects of climate change). DEFRA retained the responsibility for adaption climate change (i.e. coping with the mess caused).

When the 2008 Climate Change Act was passed, the chief scientist of DEFRA was Professor Robert Watson formerly head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to a BBC report, his removal was blamed on the US government because he told the truth about climate change:

[E]nvironmentalists accuse the US Government of orchestrating a campaign to have the scientist sidelined.
They say Washington disliked Dr Watson’s willingness to tell governments what he believes to be the unvarnished truth – that human activities are now contributing dangerously to climate change.


Climate policy transferred to the business department

In July 2016, there was another reorganisation: The responsibility for climate mitigation was passed to a new government department, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), created by merging DECC with the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).
BEIS is now the lead department for climate science. However, an internet search “BEIS permanent secretary’s meetings” shows very few meetings about climate change over the past few years but lots of others on industrial strategy.


Fossil fuel interests have had an inside track

This change was not welcome to green groups, who saw fossil fuel interests in a stronger position to influence government. In Revealed: How the gas industry spent tens of millions of pounds lobbying UK & EU policymakers (February 2016), Greenpeace reported:

Oil and gas giants spent tens of millions of pounds lobbying key decision makers ahead of global climate talks and big changes to UK energy policy, according to a Greenpeace investigation.

The analysis of accounts, LinkedIn and other data also revealed that oil and gas firms held more than 143 meetings with ministers between October 2013 and March 2015.


A new government department: The Department of Climate Change

It is shocking to see that the “ground breaking” climate change act of 2008 started the process of taking climate policy away from DEFRA and given to BEIS, a government department more interested in industry than the fate of our planet.

A better option would have been for Defra to have kept policy on climate change – although there are reasons to suspect their performance because of the influence of the agricultural interests. (See “Can Defra be trusted with climate?” on the treatment of emissions from the beef farming.) But …

The climate brief should be transferred to a new department, the Department for Climate Change.


Part 2: Current climate change policy


BEIS claim UK leadership on climate change

BEIS claim that the UK is a leader in climate change mitigation, as shown in their policy paper, Clean Growth Strategy, The first paragraph of the executive summary is headed “UK leadership and progress”. The BEIS claim is:

We have been among the most successful countries in the developed world in growing our economy while reducing emissions. Since 1990, we have cut emissions by 42% while our economy has grown by two-thirds.

Greta Thunberg pointed out the weakness in this claim, when she visited the UK Parliament in April 2019. The BBC reported:

[Greta Thunberg] described the UK’s carbon emissions reduction as the result of “very creative” accounting.

The country’s reported 37% reduction in emissions since 1990 was only 10% when aviation, shipping, imports and exports were counted, she said.


BEIS has a commitment to economic growth, which prevents emissions falling fast enough.

As I pointed out in a previous submission, A problem with the Green New Deal, it is not possible to get greenhouse gas emissions to fall fast enough without reducing the level of production. That is not growth: it is degrowth.

BEIS as the business department, pursues economic growth, but claims it can be green growth, where emissions fall, and the economy expands. BEIS call this Clean Growth.

It is possible for emissions to fall while the economy expands, but any expansion, slows any fall in emissions. To hit targets like limiting the rise of Earth’s average temperature to 1.5C (or even 2.0C) requires very large annual falls in emissions. Any economic growth slows this fall and makes it impossible to hit climate targets.


Production and consumption emissions

Defra publish another a measure of the UK’s CO2e emissions based on UK consumption. It does include emissions from aviation, shipping and imports. In 2016 the measure by DEFRA was 68% higher that the estimate from BEIS.

Professor Tim Jackson has estimated UK’s fair share of the remaining carbon budget to keep the Earth within a 1.5C rise in global temperature. In terms of CO2e it is 3.2 billion tonnes CO2e [Note: This has been inflated from Jackson’s original estimate of 2.5 billion tonnes CO2 to account for other greenhouse gases].

The latest estimate for UK consumption emissions is 772 GtCO2e (in 2017). If these were to decline steadily until the government’s year for ‘net-zero emissions’, 2050, the emissions due to UK consumption, would total 12.7 billion tonnes CO2e, four times the UK’s share of Jackson’s fair remaining carbon budget.

Perhaps the UK should not even claim credit for even the 10% reduction emissions since 1990 as it was not a result of climate policy. It was largely gained from the “dash for gas” which moved electricity generation from coal because it was a cheaper option than deep mining and reduced the power of the mining unions.

However, the UK Government, led by BEIS, has recently approved a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, due to produce 2.5 million tonnes coal for 40 years. This will result in emissions of 268 million tonnes CO2. That is about 10% of the UK’s fair remaining carbon budget estimated by Tim Jackson.

Choosing a measure of CO2e emissions that ignores imports, shows BEIS values industry and business well above climate change mitigation.


BEIS, climate science and the Committee on Climate Change.

Unsurprisingly but disturbingly, BEIS have influence over UK climate science. In particular, BEIS has ultimate responsibility for the work of the Met Office, which runs the main climate research facility in the UK, the Hadley Centre.

In addition, BEIS appoints members of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). The CCC is often billed as “the Independent Committee on Climate Change” but since BEIS appoint all the members of the committee, the output of the committee can be influenced by BEIS’s choice of members. There are nine members of the committee, including the chairman and the chief executive. I have met or corresponded with most of them.

The two climate scientists on the committee have recently written a piece on the CCC’s website, Climate change is getting worse but it is no worse than we predicted. This was published before the news broke about the unprecedented heatwave in the Arctic:

In May, surface temperatures in parts of Siberia were up to 10°C above average, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). Martin Stendel, of the Danish Meteorological Institute, said the abnormal May temperatures seen in north-west Siberia would be likely to happen just once in 100,000 years without human-caused global heating.

The Senior Analyst for Climate Science for the CCC is Richard Millar, a co-author, with Piers Forster of the paper, Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. This paper suggests there is a bigger remaining carbon budget than previously thought to keep global warming below the 1.5°C in the Paris climate target. Several prominent climate scientists criticised this paper but it was reported in some in the media to argue that climate change was less urgent than previously thought.


The CCC must encompasses wider views on climate change

The new Department of Climate Change should change the composition of the CCC to see that it encompasses wider views on climate change. These should be considered:

  • Professor Robert Watson, previously head of the IPCC would be an obvious choice.
  • Professor Tim Jackson’s input on carbon budgets would be helpful.
  • Professor John Barratt’s team compiles the important estimates of UK consumption emissions.
  • Professor Peter Cox has done important work on tipping points and the possibility of using the reduction of methane emissions to buy time.
  • Professor Kevin Anderson is a climate scientist always willing to speak his mind: In reaction to the committee’s report, Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming (May 2019), Professor Anderson wrote:

“The CCC’s lengthy report will be enthusiastically welcomed by Government ministers, many senior academics and NGO glitterati. They will acknowledge the challenges it implies, whilst at the same time noting how the CCC has demonstrated a credible pathway to a ‘net’ zero carbon UK. But peer under the bonnet and all is not quite as it seems.

Appointments to the Committee on Climate Change should not be the responsibility of BEIS and the composition of the CCC should encompass a wider range of views.


Part 3: The strange case of Professor Peter Wadhams

Professor Peter Wadhams is a controversial climate scientist. However, his Tedx Talk, A farewell to Ice, about how the changes in the Arctic are progressing climate change, is clear, easy to understand.

Professor Wadhams’ warnings are dire, and largely ignored. He has very worrying warnings about the possible release of huge quantities of methane from permafrost as the Arctic warms. Methane is a greenhouse gas much more powerful than CO2.

In the past Jonathon Porritt had complained about Peter Wadhams for his attacks on the Green Party but after reading Wadham’s book, also called A Farewell to Ice, Porritt wrote an article Climate Fight Night: Donald Trump -v- Peter Wadhams where he said:

But [Wadham’s] principal concern is to raise the following question:
“Why then are we doing nothing about it? Why is this risk generally ignored by climate scientists, and scarcely mentioned in the latest IPCC assessment? I fear it is a collective failure of nerve by those whose responsibility is to speak out and advocate action. It seems to be not just climate change deniers who wish to conceal the Arctic methane threat, but also many Arctic scientists, including so-called ‘methane experts’.”

And he’s right. Which is why, despite previous hostile fire between myself and Peter Wadhams, I undertake here and now never to criticise him whoever he criticises, whenever, with whatever level of vituperative rhetoric. Because if we’re not listening to the likes of Peter Wadhams, then we too are in denial.

To be clear: BEIS should have no influence on the choice of scientists advising the IPCC.


Part 4: The need for enhanced town planning

There has been a recent paper by UKFires, Absolute Zero, which recommends action on climate change such as

  • Road use at 60% of 2020 levels –
  • Electric trains the preferred mode of travel for people and freight.
  • All airports to close.
  • Beef and lamb phased out.
  • All materials production electric.

This report was used by the Labour Peer, Lord Browne of Ladyton to introduce an excellent debate in the House of Lords. He said:

The authors of Absolute Zero—a recent report by UK FIRES, a consortium of UK academic experts—have done us all a great service by authoritatively and painstakingly exposing the degree to which we are being misled by a techno-optimistic approach to the climate change challenge. This may explain why the report, despite being funded by government money, has not really surfaced since its publication.

In the Absolute Zero report there were several other suggestions:

  • Eating local food.
  • Putting more bike lanes in cities
  • Smaller cars powered by electricity

But has little mention of

  • Localising employment and leisure
  • Growing more food locally
  • Locally banning owning cars

In order to plan settlements that are truly low carbon, these remedies must be considered. They are remedies that need town planning. Although the report mentions retraining architects and structural engineers. it has no mention of town planners. This is where the authors could do further work. However, they mention one topic that is clearly town planning:

“the trade-off between building tall (probably using high-carbon materials) with low transport requirements, and building low-rise (using low-carbon materials) but with higher transport requirements in a more sprawling approach, needs to be explored.”

Finding ways of avoiding this trade-off (and other trade-offs) needs an enhanced form of town planning, with a greater scope that is currently allowed. We need to find very different ways of living which can influence the rest of the world – as British town planners have done in the past.

The assumption in Absolute Zero is that it is good enough to reach zero emissions in 2050 is invalid. In the estimate above, I estimated that reaching zero emissions in 2050 creates emissions that are four times too big to fit into Tim Jackson’s fair remaining carbon budget.

In order to do better we need enhanced town planning to change the way we plan our villages, towns and cities. I may produce a further submission on enhanced town planning. For now I append these references to the topic:

The Institute of Enhanced Town Planning
A quirky Introduction to the idea.

Topics 1 to 5 and 6 to 10 are ..

  • • Carbon footprints, new towns, embodied emissions, new types of car, growth&poverty.
  • • Car-free cities, local food, rewilding, planning permission, friends & neighbours.

The York Local Plan: Climate Change
An example of planning that destroys the climate.

Housing – part 18: A NEW Ministry of Works
A suggestion for a new government department.

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