On 28th October 2008, the Climate Change Act was debated in the UK Parliament. It became law a month later. In November I wrote the following letter to my MP, Mrs Ann Keen, Member of Parliament for Brentford and Isleworth.
14th November 2008
Dear Mrs Keen,
I am writing in connection with the Climate Change Bill, which was passed through the Commons last month and supported by a majority of MPs. I understand that this Bill, when it becomes law, will commit the UK to reducing its emissions of CO2 by 80% by 2050, including the emissions from shipping and aviation. Personally, I am sceptical about the extent to which man-made carbon dioxide has much, or any, impact on average global temperatures, but aside from this, I think there are additional good reasons why the Bill should have been challenged, or at least more thoroughly debated in Parliament.
1) Even if the proponents of man-made Global Warming are correct in their basic assumptions, I understand that the UK’s CO2 emissions come to a very small percentage (probably under 5%, and I’ve seen at least one source which states under 2%) of the world total, smaller by far than the portions of the USA, China, Russia and India. I’m surely not alone in thinking that a 60%, 80% or even a 100% reduction of the UK’s carbon emissions would thus appear to have minimal consequences for the climate as a whole.
2) An additional problem would appear to be that even if the UK drastically reduces its carbon emissions, it is not clear what measurable results the reduction would have (if any.) Normally, if there is some sort of economic sacrifice, such as an increase in income tax or council tax, we can be sure that the money levied will be spent somewhere and that we will experience tangible and measurable benefits, e.g., more police on the streets, schools and hospitals with better resources, fire stations with more up-to-date equipment, etc. There is also some accountability if such benefits do not occur, i.e. there is an audit trail that can be followed, to determine how the money was spent (or not spent, as the case may be.) There seems to be no measurable outcome that can be confidently predicted for a cut in the UK’s carbon emissions, e.g. a corresponding reduction in global temperatures or a reduction in the rate of sea level rise. In other words, this cut appears to represent an economic sacrifice for which there seems to be no evidence of a guaranteed or measurable return.
3) Furthermore, it is not very clear how far this cut will affect the UK economy in the decades to come. Common sense suggests that the cost of generating energy and doing business will rise by a large amount, but the extent of this is not fully known. Extending the emissions cut to shipping and aviation will surely affect the UK’s trade and our competitiveness in the world economy – again, it is not clear by how much. From my (admittedly limited) understanding of Parliamentary procedures, it does not seem that this matter has been properly assessed and debated, especially as the financial and social consequences could be far-reaching.
4) I would add that the science of climate change, far from being “settled”, as some proclaim, appears to be anything but, on further inspection. Institutions monitoring global temperatures, such as NASA GISS and the UK’s Hadley Centre, rely on computer models which provide a range of projections for future temperatures; however, these are highly controversial and appear to be flawed in quite a few ways. In December 2003, for instance, the Hadley Centre’s Climatic Research Unit in East Anglia were confident that temperatures would rise during 2006-2010. This year, however, we were told that temperatures will probably not rise again until after 2010; basically, my understanding is that they had underestimated the cooling effect attributed to La Nina.
The concept of due diligence seems to me to be as important in science as it is in business, and I’m concerned that not enough was done in this instance, before approving a decision which could have very far-reaching consequences for the UK economy during the next 42 years and beyond. Personally, I would like to see more openness, in the British media and in British politics, regarding the uncertainties and the limitations of the scientific models upon which these important economic decisions are based. Proponents of man-made Global Warming might argue that the time for debate is over, and that urgent and unilateral action is required. However, I take a different view – that when the economic stakes are high, it is better to be cautious, to consider both sides of a proposition and to make sure that there is a proper, public and thorough audit of the science.
As a constituent, I am therefore asking whether you would be prepared to put the following questions to Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change:
1) What actions are the Government taking to scrutinise and assess the likely impact of the 80% emissions cut on the UK economy?
2) What actions are the Government taking to determine exactly (if at all possible) what measurable effect the UK’s 80% emissions cut will have on world climate?
3) What actions are the Government taking to carry out due diligence on the science of climate change, and ensure that the public and media are aware of the uncertainties and limitations involved in modelling climate trends?
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter.
And here is the reply, in a letter dated 13th April 2009, to Ann Keen from Joan Ruddock MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change:
Thank you for your letter dated 9 December enclosing a copy of a letter from your constituent, Mr A Cull of [address supplied] about the Climate Change Bill (now Act). I am replying as the Minister responsible for this area and apologise for the delay in doing so, which is due to departmental reorganisation.
Your constituent expressed a number of concerns regarding the Climate Change Act in his letter.
Firstly, he questioned whether man-made carbon dioxide impacts on average global temperatures. It is evident that atmospheric concentrations of key greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, have increased significantly since the pre-industrial period. The concentrations of these gases have now reached levels unprecedented for tens of thousands of years. Carbon dioxide concentrations alone have risen by around 35% to 382ppm (parts per million) [US NOAA data - 2006 average], since 1750. The current level now far exceeds that at any time measured over the last 650,000 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report concludes that most of the observed warming since the mid-20th century is very likely, i.e. a more than 90% chance, due to human emissions of greenhouse gases. The assessments of the IPCC represent the consensus of thousands of scientists worldwide, based on peer-reviewed research.
Mr Cull asked whether by reducing its carbon emissions the UK would be able to impact on climate change, given its relatively small percentage contribution to global emissions. The UK is fully aware of the need for international cooperation on this matter and by setting a target of an 80% cut in carbon emissions – rather than the legal requirement of 60% – the Government has set an example for other countries to follow. We recognise that developed countries bear most of the responsibility for the climate change already underway and that we have a moral duty to prevent its harmful effects. It is also worth considering that British businesses throughout the globe increase the UK’s percentage contribution to carbon emissions.
Thirdly, Mr Cull highlighted the difficulty in measuring the effects of meeting carbon emissions reduction targets to ensure accountability. Action on climate change is taken to reduce the likelihood of detrimental effects in the long term. Due to the time lag in the carbon system, and our past emissions, we are already committed to a certain level of climate change. This means that even if we stopped all emissions tomorrow we would still expect another 30-40 years of temperature rise, and more than a century of sea-level rise. Predicting the exact outcomes of UK reductions in carbon emissions is extremely difficult therefore. Scientists can, however, use models to estimate how human activities have changed the likelihood of the event occurring. For example, scientists have calculated that the likelihood of a heat wave like that seen in Europe in 2003 has already at least doubled because of human-induced warming. Similarly, it is now becoming possible to attribute long-term trends in weather to human influence. For example, the recent report of the IPCC concluded that human activities have likely contributed to observed changes in wind patterns and temperature extremes globally.
I do agree that it is important for governments to be held to account on their progress. That is why the Act created an expert, Independent Committee on Climate Change to suggest the levels of budget and provide an annual progress report to Parliament, which the Government must publicly respond to. This will help keep progress towards a low-carbon economy transparent and accountable.
Finally, Mr Cull raised concerns that the Climate Change Act will adversely affect the UK economy. Ultimately, the aim of the Act is to provide a framework for the UK to make a transition to a low-carbon economy. By being the first to introduce radical emissions targets, the UK Government is giving businesses a head start in this transition, which should benefit the economy in the long term. A comprehensive approach to tackling climate change needs to include emissions from corporations, international aviation and shipping. We ensured that the Act aimed to include these emissions in its targets and budgets by the end of 2012. If this is not the case, the Government will have to explain to Parliament why not. This provides sufficient time for corporations to adapt to the legislation and for an international agreement to be reached on how to allocate aviation and shipping emissions between countries.
Should your constituent wish to examine further Parliament’s scrutiny of the Climate Change Bill, he can do so here: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2007-08/climatechangehl.html [link]
With best wishes,