15 November 2021

After a disappointing COP, the UK’s green policies need an urgent rethink

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Now that COP26 has ended in tears, is it possible that the government will review its strategy of having all of Britain’s climate policy eggs in the ‘global leadership’ basket?

When the UK’s decarbonisation target was set into law with the Climate Change Act 2008 it was acknowledged that, as we account for a negligible share of global emissions, the success of the policy would depend on other countries following suit – particularly large and growing economies like China and India.

As I wrote in my recent report on the operation of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the institutional architecture of carbon budgets and the regular advice and reporting of the CCC was built around this gamble. With the underwhelming outcome in Glasgow, is it time to revisit these founding assumptions? And if disappointment at COP26 has really seen our ‘last chance’ to prevent damaging climate change disappear, surely it’s time for some accountability on the part of the politicians and advisers whose decisions have imposed such great costs on British people and businesses, with little or no benefits either delivered or foreseeable.

At a minimum, the emphasis on mitigation (i.e. decarbonising to try to control increases in global temperatures) over adaptation (investing in infrastructure and social and economic measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change) should be reviewed. The CCC devotes most of its resources to mitigation, partly as a result of the allocation of its funding by government. This should change.

The cost/benefit profile of the UK’s commitment to Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 should also be reviewed. The soundness of the CCC ‘s finding that the target was ‘necessary, feasible and cost-effective’ has been undermined by analysis of its calculations (when they were finally published after a legal battle in which the Committee fought a Freedom of Information request).

Given that COP has shown how limited Britain’s influence can be in persuading other countries to reduce their fossil fuel consumption, the Government should be reconsidering the impact its policies are having on prosperity in this country. Predictably enough, one of the few matters that were agreed at COP26 was an increase in so-called climate finance – funding to developing countries to support efforts to adapt to climate change and build renewable energy generation capacity. So not only did the UK fail to achieve the desired policy commitments, but our negotiators agreed to double our climate finance contributions (which countries like China and Brazil receive) to $11.6 billion between 2020 and 2025.

And while the latest ‘sleaze’ allegations have sparked outrage over MPs’ second jobs and paid consultancies, the private interests of members of the CCC in energy companies and green consulting firms seem to pass unnoticed. As their influence on policymaking across ever-increasing areas of the economy and our way of life is arguably as great as that of any MP, the register of interests of CCC members deserves greater scrutiny, as does the quality and balance of their advice.

At least now that the summit in Glasgow is over the Government shouldn’t feel the need to bring in policies based on avoiding embarrassment or showing leadership as conference hosts. Given the slightly shambolic conclusion and tearful apology by COP President Alok Sharma, it’s doubtful whether that was even achieved anyway. Either way, a return to rational, transparent decision-making based on rigorous cost/benefit analysis would be one very welcome consequence of an unsatisfactory conference.

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Victoria Hewson is Head of Regulatory Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.