Buried at the heart of a banquet for bureaucrats, of targets, budgets, and reporting requirements which together make up the first two Parts of the Climate Change Act, lies an old fashioned, some would say British, aspiration to do the right thing. Pragmatism is also part of it, as perhaps is recognised by the Climate Change Committee ('CCC')1 when they say, It is difficult to imagine a global deal which allows developed countries to have emissions per capita in 2050 which are significantly above a sustainable global average.'
So, what is 'a sustainable global average'? At the time of writing there is a general consensus that:
Climate change resulting from CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions poses a huge threat to human welfare. To contain that threat the world needs to cut emissions by about 50% by 2050, and to start cutting emissions now. A global agreement to take action is vital. But a global agreement will not be possible unless the countries of the rich, developed world provide leadership.2
It is in that context that the ambitious targets within the Climate Change Act are adopted by the UK.
2009 is a crucial year for treaty making, culminating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. There, it is hoped, an agreement to govern global emissions reductions from 2013 will be reached. The importance of a global deal to replace Kyoto is underlined by the fact that the European Union is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent of 1990 levels in 2020 in the context of a global deal, but by only 20 per cent in its absence. The CCC took the same approach - making the more ambitious 'intended' budgets it recommends conditional upon achieving a global deal.
The principal duty within the Act applies to whoever may be Secretary of State in 2050. He or she is to be subject to a statutory duty to 'ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80 per cent lower than the 1990 baseline' (s. 1). Any law student could tell Government that a duty of this kind is simply unenforceable but, as Ministers insisted during the Bill's passage through Parliament, they might just be missing the point. The Government's objective in setting this statutory target3 is to give greater certainty as to the scale of change required than could be achieved by more traditional means. In doing so they seek international credibility for the UK in treaty negotiations, and domestically the platform for a gear change in policy formulation. The Act is generally a tighter and more robust series of measures designed to achieve the target than the Bill suggested it would be; for example, it includes all greenhouse gases within the net UK carbon account (s. 24), and requires the Secretary of State to limit the use of international carbon credits4 (s. 11).