The UK Climate Change Bill, the first of its kind in the world, threw up few surprises when it was finally published last week. The government has stood its ground by pegging its carbon reduction target to 60 per cent by 2050 while specifying cuts of 26 to 32 per cent by 2020.
The decision flies in the face of demands for greater reductions. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and WWF-UK released earlier this month claims that the country could cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent (Planning, 9 November, p5). The groups maintain that this target can be reached without the introduction of new nuclear power stations.
Environmentalists fear that even if it is achieved, a 60 per cent reduction could see temperatures rise by a catastrophic 4 degsC. In response to the bill, Friends of the Earth warns that the target is at least seven years old and must be updated. The Green Party has labelled it "woefully inadequate", insisting that a cut of 90 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 should be enforced.
"For the bill to avoid being just the latest example of rhetoric divorced almost entirely from the reality of the problem, it must also be backed by a wholesale review of government policy including Labour's commitment to road building and aviation growth," Green Party principal speaker Caroline Lucas argues.
The Town and Country Planning Association wants the government to set more ambitious targets, particularly in delivering its eco-towns scheme. The association insists that the planned wave of environmentally friendly settlements "must deliver a step-change in the sustainability of planning".
But the bill leaves room for future amendments that may be needed to match significant developments in scientific knowledge on global warming or changes in European legislation. RTPI policy director Rynd Smith says the targets strike a reasonable balance between future vision and technical possibilities in the 2050 timescale.
"The business community would think that 80 per cent is unreasonable," says Smith. "It is far more important to set a reasonable target, rather than one that makes players think that it cannot be achieved. Their response would be avoidance rather than delivery." The flexible target will also enable the UK to keep abreast of and comply with the rest of Europe under a directive likely to be introduced in the next few years, he predicts.
Legally binding five-year carbon budget targets, initially running up to 2022, are also secured by the bill. The government hopes that these will stimulate confidence and certainty for business planning as well as investment in the technology needed to move closer to a low- carbon economy. The budgets will take into account factors ranging from scientific knowledge for tackling climate change to energy policies and fuel poverty.
The idea came under fire from the Liberal Democrats. They claim that a combination of five-year budgets and four-year parliaments does not make for ministerial accountability. The RTPI has welcomed the news. However, Smith admits: "I would have liked the bill to say that if we release less carbon dioxide than allowed in the budget, then we reset the headline figure."
A statutory body known as the Committee on Climate Change will have responsibility for overseeing carbon budgeting. It will include up to nine members, with representation from the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Its remit will be to offer the government independent advice on achieving targets and keeping in the constraints of carbon budgets.
One of the biggest disappointments for green groups is the omission of the aviation and shipping industries, both major emitters of greenhouse gases, from the budgeting process. Smith recognises that applying UK law outside the territory is problematic but says the move sends a negative message.
"It is disappointing that those industries will be getting a free ride compared with those who produce buildings, roads and other permanent infrastructure," he complains. "The government will have to look at taxation measures or other mechanisms that make people account for and pay for those emissions."
The Climate Change Bill is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.
- Carbon emissions must be cut by between 26 and 32 per cent by 2020 and at least 60 per cent by 2050.
- Five-yearly carbon budgets will start next year for the period up to 2022.
- An independent statutory body, the Committee on Climate Change, will be set up to advise the government on carbon budgets.
- The aviation and shipping industries will not be accountable for their UK greenhouse gas emissions.
- Five gases other than carbon dioxide, including methane, will be classified as greenhouse gases.
- Government must report back every five years on how it will adapt to the impacts of climate change.