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'The government is late with its action and where it has acted, it tends to miss the mark': Lord Deben talks to The House

'The government is late with its action and where it has acted, it tends to miss the mark': Lord Deben talks to The House

Lord Deben | Portrait by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

7 min read

The UK has set bold targets to tackle climate change, but is the government up to the task? Lord Deben has his doubts. Blaming slow progress on a disconnect between ambition and delivery, he tells Isabella Kaminski the world is looking to us as COP26 hosts for action, not promises.

In late June, as The House prepared to talk to the chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), Canada was suffering from an unprecedented heatwave which left in its wake many deaths and a swell of anger about the climate crisis.

Just weeks earlier, the CCC had published a report on the UK’s adaptation to climate change, which found no strong progress in any of 34 priority areas. Its recent risk report concluded that the country was vulnerable to rising temperatures because adaptation was “underfunded and ignored”. 

Lord Deben says the topic of adaptation has been sidelined due to an underappreciation of the consequences, and a wariness in alerting the public to them. 

“People are only just beginning to realise that, whatever you do to stop the disaster of seriously extensive climate change, there are some pretty big changes [coming] which we’re not going to stop because they’re [already] on the way. Just one degree increases in average temperatures make a huge difference, and flooding has been the first sign here.”

Set up under the Climate Change Act, the CCC operates as the nation’s climate watchdog. Since 2008, it has scrutinised the government’s efforts to cut emissions and adapt to climate change, made recommendations, and reported on progress to Parliament.

It has largely found the government wanting. Its June report tracking progress against the national target to be net-zero by 2050 saw enough ambition in only four of 21 key decarbonisation areas, and just two had adequate policies in place for cutting emissions. “Vital and long-promised plans” on a plethora of key policy areas, including clean transport and hydrogen, had yet to emerge, the CCC concluded.

Deben, who has chaired the committee for the past nine years, is a Conservative with both a small and a big “c” but, with a peerage and a lifetime of expertise under his belt, he has no reservations about diagnosing the roots of the problem.

So does he think there has been a real political awakening of the scale and urgency of the climate crisis? “Yes, in the sense that the whole of government is involved and the sort of conversations you have – for almost every minister – don't have to go through why this is serious.”

The real issue, he says, is the disconnect between plans and policies and actual delivery. “On almost every front, the government is late with its action,” he tells The House, “and where it has acted, it tends to miss the mark. It isn’t so different from all sorts of other occasions in my long period in politics, but it’s particularly serious here because we are in such an urgent position and we need to act so quickly.”

The controversy over a new coal mine in Cumbria – a decision which has now been called into central government – is an example. “It tells us a message, which is that we still haven’t had the planning changes which would have made it possible for Cumbria to have made the decision not to have it in the first place.”

Deben sees a number of reasons for this policy gap, including that the process of government is painfully slow and not every department has fully realised its role. For example, he has seen little awareness of the importance of education and green jobs, while the forthcoming Planning Bill seems unlikely to set a framework for a new generation of zero-carbon buildings. 

A more fundamental barrier is ministerial perceptions that particular changes will be politically difficult. He cites as an example the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ reticence to put in place policies to reduce meat consumption – a significant source of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The truth is that people in general are moving in that direction already. There is nothing extreme about it. Take myself: a convinced carnivore but I accept the case for Britain is very simple – you eat less meat but better meat.”

People have to be better informed, says Deben. “The government should take that absolutely as its first step. It really can’t worry about what the public thinks if it hasn’t actually explained it to them.”

Public education could also help decarbonise the way we heat our homes – a policy area that has seen little progress over the past decade. “I have bought an electric car and a heat pump, because I want to do the right thing. Buying an electric car is the easiest thing in the world. But buying a heat pump is almost impossible, because the heat pump industry doesn’t know how to sell and you don’t know who you can trust. So it’s a question of government providing information.” 

Blame for the policymaking lag is often placed on the Treasury. Deben says the department is in “a better place” than he has ever known, but is still behind on publishing a report on a just transition to net-zero requested by the CCC. 

“I think the reality is the Treasury needs to be much more willing to talk about the advantages as well as the costs, because there are enormous savings which take place.”

The case for Britain is very simple – you eat less meat but better meat

However, Deben is happy to give credit where it is due. On the day we speak, the government announces it will bring forward the date by which the UK will stop generating energy from coal by a year, to 2024, a move he describes as symbolically important. 

“Britain’s whole industrial history was based on the use of coal. It reminds us that we’ve come to the end of that industrial revolution, and we’re entering into a new industrial revolution.”

As the country prepares to host the COP26 international climate talks in Glasgow in November, Deben says the move also sends a signal to other nations, particularly in Asia and Australia, that it is no longer appropriate to generate power from coal. 

Nor does he seem overly concerned about moves to approve oil and gas licensing in the Cambo fields of the North Sea. “The thing is, we’re going to need to have oil and gas for some time. And even after you cease to use it for a generation we will need it in certain areas, although it will have to have carbon capture and storage. So it’s a proper thing to consider whether we should be extending production, but only in the context of having a proper policy – a policy we don’t have.” 

But not everyone is content to wait for policy to emerge. The Department for Transport is currently having to defend itself in the High Court against claims by campaigners that its second road investment strategy (RIS2) failed to properly take climate into account. 

It is not the first project to be challenged legally, and the government as a whole is being taken to court by three young people who feel it is not doing enough to cut national emissions.

How does Deben feel about this wave of climate litigation? “I’d much prefer Parliament to be making decisions, but in the end these issues arise because of laws which Parliament has made. It’s not the judges making law – they are interpreting them.”

He sighs. “I’m a parliamentarian and I am sad about the decline of the independence of Parliament, which I think has happened because of the administrative changes which have taken place. Happily, on climate, Parliament has shown itself wonderfully supportive and [provides] cross-party support, but it’s about holding the government to account. It’s not a question of members of Parliament being less rebellious; it’s a question of not having the mechanisms, which once they had, to be able to make the government think again.”

The courts might also have to step up if, as currently seems likely, the UK misses its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, although it’s a scenario Deben is very reticent to countenance.

“If it does not meet it, the courts would require the government to do things – and of course they’ve got a perfectly good route map because that has been provided independently by our committee. But the law says it has to be that target, that budget. Parliament has passed it. It can’t be changed. And therefore they’ve got to meet it.”
 

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