Is the Climate Change Act safe?
By Matthew Lockwood, 26 March 2013
This post first appeared on the Political Climate website
So, the Daily Telegraph has called for the repeal of the 2008 Climate Change Act. A piece of legislation that Tony Blair called revolutionary and Friends of the Earth (who had campaigned for it) called ground-breaking. Our current PM, David Cameron, said that the Act would be remembered long after he’d gone (although acerbic critics might add that that date is fast approaching…). Many environmentalists saw the CCA as a key step, locking the UK into the certainty of a low-carbon future. Even at the time, my view was that it wasn’t that simple, that politics always trumps law. More to the point, as the American political scientist Eric Patashnik argues in his excellent book, “the passage of a reform law is only the beginning of a political struggle”. I have drawn out the implications of this point for the CCA at length in a recent working paper for the Energy Policy Group at Exeter University.
To be sustainable, a major law like the CCA has to create its own political positive feedback, and reduce opposition against it through its own effects. The classic example in the UK is the creation of the National Health Service after the Second World War. This reform created huge new constituencies, not only working class patients who had previously been unable to afford proper treatment, but also a new group of NHS workers, who now had a direct interest in its continuation (not to mention a pharmaceutical industry that would grow hugely with a new state funded client). Opposition from consultants was overcome by a compromise on private practice.
Patashnik argues that durable reforms need to transform institutions, create new interest groups (and destroy old ones) and generate investment in the new regime. ultimately, like the NHS, a successful reform involves changing perceptions, making it literally unthinkable that the reform would be reversed.
Has the CCA done this? The short answer is – not yet. The Act created new institutions, notably in the Climate Change Committee, but this is relatively weak. Perhaps more important was the creation of DECC around the same time, but even DECC does not displace the power of the Treasury, which continues to be able to place limits on policy.
Perhaps most importantly, the Act has not yet created large new interest groups. In some regions, new green industries like offshore wind are becoming politically important, but this is not yet enough to overcome the Achille’s heel of climate policy – the perception of high cost. What matters here is not actual costs, but perceptions. Climate policy still remains vulnerable to arguments about energy costs simply because the latter is more salient for the mass of the population. Most people do actually like renewable energy and disagree with the obsession of the Tory right, but they just don’t care enough about it to give the CCA a secure underpinning. This is only likely to get worse when the effects of cuts to local government services starts to feed through next month and political energy and concern will be tied up elsewhere
Finally, on vested interests, the Act was helping to drive through more investment by the Big Six energy companies in low-carbon assets, especially off shore wind, but that has now been derailed by the uncertainty over the EMR, and by wider political uncertainties created by Osborne over the fourth budget.
Overall, then. the CCA is not creating enough of its own political feedback effect to secure its own future. I actually still think it very unlikely that the CCA will be repealed. But as Patashnik argues, there are many ways that a piece of legislation can effectively die without being repealed. Just look at the way that the Act has already been weakened by hanging a review over the fourth budget. However, it is still a sign of the vulnerability of the Act that a national newspaper has openly called for repeal. Up until now, only a few marginal crackpots (along with the more influential but niche ConservativeHome website) have had this position.
What is to be done? There is a big contrast here with Germany, where feed-in tariffs brought literally millions of people into low-carbon generation, giving them a material stake in the future policy regime. Centrally important to this, from early on, was the involvement of conservative farming communities who provide a counterweight within the CDU to those opposing the expansion of renewables. While there are political debates in Germany about the speed of expansion of renewable energy, the overall direction is now clear. The Energiewende will not be reversed. In my view, the answer is not about adopting a new set of targets (although I’m not opposed to a 2030 electricity decarbonisation target). rather, we need to start thinking more carefully about the political effects of policies, and how they can build constituencies for a low-carbon future.