Friday, October 27, 2006

Climate change and the Underpants Gnomes

There’s an episode of South Park in which the boys discover that a band of tiny gnomes are stealing people’s underpants. In the gnomes’ underground lair, they explain their cunning plan:

Cartman: “So what are you gonna do with all these underpants that you steal?’
Gnome: “Collecting underpants is just phase 1. Phase 1: collect underpants.”
Kyle: “Sooo, what's phase 2?”
Gnome: [has no response. Looks around, then calls out to the other gnomes on the underpants mound] “Hey, what's phase 2?”
Gnome 2: “Phase 1: we collect underpants.”
Gnome: “Yeah yeah yeah, but. What about phase 2?”
Gnome 2: [says nothing, then] “Well, phase 3 is profit. Get it?”
Stan: “I don't get it.”
Gnome 2: [walks up to a large chart] “You see, Phase 1: collect underpants. Phase 2: … Phase 3: Profit!”
Cartman: “Oh, I get it.”

There is much clamour at the moment for something called a ‘climate change bill’. The Independent wants one, and so do the Tories.

The latter have even published a proposal, pompously entitled ‘A Bill (as called for by the people of Britain) to control emissions of climate change gases in the United Kingdom’ – rather than the more accurate ‘A Press Release (as written by the Conservative Party) to make the government look bad’:

“The purpose of the Bill is to set the United Kingdom on a path to delivering a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 60 per cent by 2050, in line with the present recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; to establish a statutory duty to meet this target; to put in place mechanisms for setting annual targets leading towards the 2050 target; to establish a statutory duty to meet these annual targets; to put in place mechanisms whereby progress towards the 2050 target can be measured and reported upon annually; and to enable policy to be informed by, and adjusted according to, the latest authoritative, independent, scientific evidence.”

The whole text of the proposal – I do recommend that you read it all, it won’t take long – goes into more detail on the structure of the commission, the scheduling of the target reviews, the making of ministerial progress reports and the like. But on two matters it is utterly silent.

First of all, while it states that the targets should be “binding”, it contains no provision whatsoever for any way of enforcing the “statutory duty to meet these annual targets”. And it hints at no sanction that could be applied in the event of a missed target, nor to whom such a sanction might apply (the Environment Secretary/the Prime Minister/the Cabinet/the whole of Parliament/industry/the general public?).

David Cameron sneered at Tony Blair this week that any Labour proposals would doubtless be “watered down”. But the Tory proposal is all water to start with. It talks tough, but amounts to nothing without measures for either enforcement or punishment.

Secondly, and far more seriously, the Tory proposal contains absolutely no suggestions for how to reduce emissions by as much as a gnat’s fart. How are they going to do it: wind farms across Yorkshire? New nuclear power stations? Taxes on flights and gas-guzzlers? Banning energy-inefficient appliances? Subsidising loft insulation? Industry carbon rationing? EU emissions trading? Not a word.

This is wishing the end but not the means. It’s just not credible.

More broadly, I think that carbon emission targets for every single year, with real sanctions against ministers for missing them, would be stupid. These emissions are the result of far more than government policy, and to single anyone out as responsible for the actions of the whole country is absurd. Unless, of course, Cameron favours a total command economy?

Also, the threat of annual sanctions would, rather than concentrating the minds of government to make sustained efforts, be more likely to inspire a series of annual desperate wheezes by ministers concerned for their next paycheque, in the knowledge that within a couple of years they’ll probably be reshuffled elsewhere. A string of attempted quick fixes will fail before very long, and is no substitute for a long-term strategy. This scheme would provide no incentive at all to pursue measures that would have a big effect only five to ten years down the line.

What is needed is substantial, sustainable cuts in emissions, starting ASAP and continuing over decades (across the world, not just in the UK). That doesn’t entail that every single year must be an improvement on the last, as long as the trend is right. Any number of things could unexpectedly make emissions increase in the short term.

And compare other policy areas: nobody seriously imagines that the rules should dock the Home Secretary’s pay if the crime rate goes up in one particular year, or that the Chancellor should lose his job if the unemployment rate rises in any given quarter, or that the Health Secretary’s career should be wrecked by a single old lady waiting too long on a hospital trolley (actually, I think the Tories often have gone for that last one, but never mind).

The Tories claim that this is “taking the politics out of climate change” – but of course it isn’t any such thing. What it would do is motivate the shortest of short-termism, institutionalise a blame game and leave all the controversial policy decisions unmade. The annual targets idea sounds tough but is irrelevant and unworkable – and that’s even if you fill in the gaping emptiness at the heart of Cameron’s version.

Phase 1: Pass climate change bill.
Phase 2: …
Phase 3: Prevent climate change!

You can’t save the world by proclamation or by woolly good intentions. Pants to that.

But I am glad the Tories are now talking about climate change, however vaguely and implausibly. It creates some political space for the government to get its act together and make some of the unpleasant decisions that are necessary. Labour’s record on this hasn’t exactly been brilliant – largely because of its depressing fear of the depressing Tory attacks on fuel duty and the like.

The Stern Review next week will make interesting reading.

1 comment:

Robert Jackman said...

Although the Labour government have promised to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050, they've also promised to treble the airline industry by 2030. If they do achieve both of these promises, then air travel will take up ALL of our emissions target.
I think Cameron should be credited for putting climate change on the political agenda, but I think he should learn from Michael Howard and Enoch Powell.
Have a look at my latest post to find out why :P
Enjoyed your blog alot - let me know if you'd like a link from mine.