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We need a Future Generations Bill to stop the Government saying one thing on net-zero and then doing another

4 min read

Our policy-making is stuck in a rut of short-termism. Lord Bird’s Future Generations Bill will help tackle the climate emergency as well as being good politics, explains the IPPR’s Joshua Emden 

If the Government is serious about tackling climate change and environmental breakdown, then it must pass Lord Bird’s Future Generations Bill.

Thanks to the awareness-raising of groups like Extinction Rebellion and student climate strikers like Greta Thunberg, there is a growing acknowledgement that young and future generations will disproportionately bear the burden of climate and wider environmental breakdown.

As IPPR’s own recent report Inheriting the Earth shows, consumption of a person born in 2050 will need to be reduced anywhere between 71 to 91% depending on the resource, such as nitrogen, phosphorus or material footprint.

It seems like common sense then, that a government should recognise the unprecedented challenges facing future generations and carefully weigh up the long-term future impacts of its policymaking.  Unfortunately, the reality is policymaking is overwhelming dictated by short term interests and the electoral cycle. 

Consequently, for all the overtures of the UK being a global leader on climate change and the ambition of the net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 target, the UK government is saying one thing and doing another. 

In 2017 the Government invested £11bn in oil and gas assets compared to £7.5bn in renewable energy projects.  A recent report from the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee found that from 2013-2018 UK Export Finance, the UK’s export credit agency, invested £2.5bn in fossil fuel projects in predominantly low and middle-income countries. Despite protests, condemnation and widespread unpopularity, the Government has still not fully shed its obsession with fracking.  Lastly, a recent report from Global Witness found that subsidies in the form of tax breaks for the oil and gas industry to continue extraction from North Sea Oil will add twice as much CO2 to the atmosphere as the phase-out of coal-fired power stations has saved.

These activities are not the sign of a government that is committed to acting on climate change.  Even though the Government has committed itself in legislation to meeting net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, its actions to-date show that it has not broken free from the culture of short-term policymaking.

One of the best ways to break this deadlock which doesn’t currently feature in the Queen’s Speech is to adopt a Future Generations Bill, instead being introduced in the Lords by Lord Bird as a private member’s bill.

The Future Generations Bill would not only formally embed the rights of future generations into UK law but would also create the organisational infrastructure to ensure they were protected.  Building on the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) in 2015, the bill would introduce a Future Generations Commissioner that would advise and require government to conduct “future impact assessments”. This would mean that all government policy would have to ensure it was not harming future generations, and implicitly therefore, meet its own net-zero commitments.

Though it has ‘future generations’ in the name, such stipulations in the bill would also be of substantial benefit to current generations.  Acting on a net-zero target will require upgrading the efficiency and decarbonising the heating systems of almost every household in the UK, including the 2.55 million households currently living in fuel poverty. Provided they were not made to pay for these upgrades, radical action could therefore completely eliminate fuel poverty by drastically reducing these households’ energy bills.

A Future Generations Bill would be critical for businesses too. Amid the uncertainty posed by Brexit, introducing legislation that committed government to long-term policymaking would help businesses to conduct their own long-term planning.  The increased certainty brought on by this culture shift could in turn make the UK a more attractive destination for investment.

Finally, ignoring future generations is fundamentally bad politics. The student climate strikers of today will soon be tomorrow’s voters.  As Greta Thunberg so aptly pointed out in her speech at the recent UN Climate Summit, if the leaders of today fail to act, younger generations will never forget and never forgive them

Passing a Future Generations Bill is the only way to provide the necessary shift in attitude that would ensure today’s leaders are not condemned by history as failures.

Joshua Emden is a Research Fellow at IPPR

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