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Parliament needs a dedicated net-zero committee to ensure we reach our climate targets

Parliament needs a dedicated net-zero committee to ensure we reach our climate targets

Only 2% of the population strongly opposes onshore wind, but most MPs believed the level to be over 20%. | PA Images

Tom Sasse

Tom Sasse | Institute for Government

4 min read

Parliament needs to start taking climate change seriously and hold regular debates on concrete action needed to achieve the UK’s climate targets.

In June 2019, as one of the final acts to leave a legacy beyond Brexit, Theresa May’s government laid a statutory instrument before parliament – a piece of secondary legislation, under the Climate Change Act 2008. After a debate of an hour and a half, the UK became the first advanced economy to commit itself in law to reduce net greenhouse gases to zero by 2050.

What is remarkable looking back is the way politicians waved through such a huge decision – with profound consequences for the UK’s economy and the lives of every person and business in the country – with so little debate. But it reflects a more general lack of interest in – and focus on – climate change in Parliament, which has continued since the target was adopted.

What explains this attention deficit for the most pressing problem of our times?

The answer is partly to do with members’ perceptions. A fascinating study based on interviews with MPs found many avoided raising climate change because they were concerned about appearing like ‘zealots’ to constituents with more everyday concerns. Other studies show MPs consistently underestimate the importance voters place on tackling climate change and their support for specific measures. Only 2% of the population strongly opposes onshore wind, but most MPs believed the level to be over 20%.

This helps to explain why climate change receives such little time on the floor of the house. Last year, as MPs spent many long evenings debating Brexit, the only substantive debate on climate change was on an opposition day motion to declare a climate emergency. The last consequential debate on the issue was now more than a decade ago, when parliament first agreed to the Climate Change Act.

Perceptions should now surely be changing. This week, the Climate Assembly – a representative group of over a hundred members of the public which, over several months, has been given information and asked to make choices about the UK’s path net zero – published its findings. The group was commissioned by six select committees. Their report shows that when confronted with difficult decisions, the public backs action on climate change, even when it requires changes in their own lives.

Parliament should debate The Climate Assembly’s findings

We argue in a new report also published this week that parliament should debate the Assembly’s findings – and hold much more regular debates on the concrete actions needed to achieve the UK’s climate targets.

But the problem is also to do with how parliament is organised. Committee corridor struggles to focus on climate issues. This is not all the fault of parliamentarians. Theresa May’s decision to merge the Department for Energy and Climate Change into the business department in 2016 meant that the Energy and Climate Change committee – which had been a focal point for parliament’s expertise on climate change – was abolished.

While the ECC Committee ran 16 inquiries in the 2015-16 session all focussing on energy and climate issues, the BEIS committee which replaced it has only spent between a third and a sixth of its time on energy and climate issues since then.

Other committees similarly struggle, with a wide range of other departmental priorities to cover. Housing and transport are consistently highlighted as the two areas where the UK is furthest off track, yet neither has dedicated an inquiry to net zero since the target was adopted. The Environmental Audit Committee, established to be a “PAC for the environment”, has never quite lived up to that billing. Most committees fail to follow up on the reports of the government’s independent advisory body.

At the very least, committees should take the Assembly’s recommendations as a starting point for inquiries – whether into SUVs or frequent flying charges.

But we argue that what Parliament really needs is a dedicated “net zero committee” to mirror the cross-cutting nature of government’s target. We discuss several forms this could take – what is vital is that parliamentary scrutiny of climate change becomes consistent, high profile and joined up. More effective scrutiny will increase the political price of poor performance.

With only fourteen months to go until the UK hosts the crucial COP26 summit, Parliament needs to start taking climate change much more seriously. Backing gestures and distant targets is not enough. It needs to focus its attention on holding the government to account – and engaging with the choices and options ahead.

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Read the most recent article written by Tom Sasse - Why can't BEIS and the Treasury get on?