Historic climate change deal with legal powers agreed by Cabinet?

That is what The Grauniad said over the weekend.

Cabinet ministers have agreed a far-reaching, legally binding "green deal" that will commit the UK to two decades of drastic cuts in carbon emissions. The package will require sweeping changes to domestic life, transport and business and will place Britain at the forefront of the global battle against climate change.

We all know what happens to people in the forefront of battle: they get shot dead. My initial reaction is: this is a very bad idea. The cabinet apparently wills the ends, and realises it will have major consequences, but it doesn't appear to have willed any means. Anything that really does "require sweeping changes to domestic life" is going to encounter lots of opposition, which is going to see lots of politicians running away from the heat.

Timmy isn't very impressed either, and points to the more up-to-date Chris Huhne pledges to halve UK carbon emissions by 2025. And it really is true, cos he said it to parliament:

The Climate Change Act 2008 sets a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050... The first three carbon budgets were set in 2009, following advice from the independent Committee on Climate Change. The Fourth Carbon Budget - the limit on emissions for the five year period from 2023 to 2027 - has to be set in law by the end of June 2011. As advised by the Committee on Climate Change, the level we propose setting in law would mean that net emissions over the Fourth Carbon Budget period should not exceed 1950 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. - a 50% reduction from 1990 levels... we will publish a report setting out the policies and proposals required in the medium-long term to meet the budget...

How do they propose to achieve this? Things are left artfully vague:

the Committee on Climate Change advised that we should aim to meet the Budget through emissions reductions in the UK rather than relying on carbon trading, such as under the EU Emissions Trading System or the purchase of international credits from projects abroad. We will aim to reduce emissions domestically as far as is practical and affordable. But we also intend to keep our carbon trading options open

But there are some very bad signs:

we need to ensure that energy intensive industries remain competitive... we will be announcing a package of measures for energy intensive businesses... take steps to reduce the impact of government policy on the cost of electricity for these businesses...

Its all hopeless, really. They are idiots. The solution is a carbon tax. But that would be too simple for their dear little minds and leave them with nothing to do and no policies to fiddle. So they need to introduce bizarre complex and stupid structures in order to give themselves something to play with.

Perhaps the easiest way to notch up carbon credits would be for us to build nuclear power plants in China.


* Ambitious reduction targets for the United Kingdom, but . . .

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The solution is a carbon tax.

Indeed. So simple, so flexible, so obvious. But it has that "tax" word in it, so absurdly complex, scam-friendly, bureaucrat-ogenic nitwittery will be proposed instead. Feh.

Politicians prefer complex policy because it gives them a way to claim they are doing something even as emissions do anything but drop.

At least that is what the cynic in me keeps telling me.

As far as a carbon tax goes, I'm not entirely sure..

The reason is this: Take petrol. If we assume that fuel duty is effectively a carbon tax, then a 'carbon tax' exceeding 100% has only marginally modified behaviour; with fuel prices in the UK averaging 3 times that in the US, usage per capita is still half, some of which is undoubtedly due to our more compact cities.

The general problem is that carbon emissions are generally done by equipment that represents a significant capital investment up-front - Cars, Central Heating systems, Power Stations, etc - so the level of tax required to make people throw this stuff out and replace it with something zero-carbon must be extreme indeed.

Even worse, of course, since the taxes end up being passed on to consumers one way or another, and even the conservatives are mildly disturbed by grannies freezing to death in their homes, if only because many are conservative voters, you end up with things like the winter fuel allowance to offset the effects of the tax.

The real problem seems to be that once you hand a problem to economists, the only available answer seems to be some form of tax or market. Simply using government investment to decarbonise the electric supply, build a vastly improved electric rail network, make electric heating systems standard for homes and introduce electric cars for as many urban journeys as possible.. all relatively simple measures that would cost (relative) peanuts - somehow is declared impossible. Possibly because there would be less work for the City and now new markets to game..

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 19 May 2011 #permalink


It's certainly possible to do all the things you mentioned, but an intelligently set tax will accomplish the same goals (perhaps not the rail network).

The problem with the government mandated solution is that it is inflexible and uncreative. There is little incentive for innovation and then you have the problem of the best connected ideas being pushed rather than the best ideas, regardless.

And of course, to pay for all that government stuff you have to...ahem...raise taxes, right?

Andrew, if you think equipment representing significant up-front investment is a problem, consider cities! All that infrastructure is an enormous investment problem. Edmonton and Calgary were built for cars and that's still how they're growing. If fuel there was as expensive as in western Europe, perhaps the cities would have developed differently. It would make a real difference. I wonder if suburbanization in Europe would have occurred faster than it has if fuel was priced like it is in Alberta.

The IPCC puts a 90 percent probability that human sourced CO2 is the primary cause of dangerous warming. That means that there is a 10 percent chance that a swingeing carbon tax would be useless. After some time (say 30 years according to Rahmstorf) we will know if a tax was worth it. Will the tax be paid back? The grannies unfrozen? Of course the pollies will play for time rather than do something that hurts.

By Richard Hill (not verified) on 20 May 2011 #permalink

When it comes to the social sciences, history is about the nearest thing to a laboratory there is. The only large industrial country to rid itself of fossil fuels in electricity generation without big hydro has been France. Different motivation but exactly the same objective. Would this have happened without significant state involvement other than a carbon tax? It seems very unlikely.

I think Andrew Dodds has it pretty much right, though determination of public or private ownership in whatever mix should be matter of pragmatism. Given the urgency of getting on with this "whatever works" should be the grounding principle and jettison all the ideological baggage about governments not being creative etc. Government is not a dirty word.

A carbon tax may well be necessary, but is probably not sufficient.

Or Solar plants in Libya?


[Yes, that is a good idea. In a month or two -W]

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 21 May 2011 #permalink

Hi Dr. B sorry you lost your Wikipedia unpaid job-and there goes your Green ticket credentials. Hope I did not have any hand in you being booted. You know half the stuff I say is just for effect. Recreational flaming.

But seriously, why would the UK want to become even more green and carbon neutral? Already they are very much at the forefront of being C-neutral. Must be that there's hardly any manufacturing left in the UK so it does not matter.

As for this statement: "The IPCC puts a 90 percent probability that human sourced CO2 is the primary cause of dangerous warming. That means that there is a 10 percent chance that a swingeing carbon tax would be useless. " this is very true. Depending on the discount value taken for AGW mitigation, even a 10% chance of being wrong could be disastrous for the world economy--and by the Kuznets Curve that would mean destroying any chance of inventing a Buck Rogers / Silver Bullet solution to AGW, which only comes about with economic growth.

By Raylopez99 (not verified) on 27 May 2011 #permalink

Dur Misser Prezdent,

That the DoD puts a 90% probability that Russian sourced missiles on Cuba are the primary danger of human caused Armygeddon. That means there is a 10% chance that they are wrong and the US Navy 2nd. Fleet is superfluous.

Depending on the discount value taken for Soviet deterrence, even a 10% chance of being superfluous could be disastrous for the world economy--and by the Kuznets Curve that would mean destroying any chance of inventing a Buck Rogers / Silver Bullet solution to Soviet expansion, which will only come about with economic growth.

I thurfore demand you withdraw the Fleet and the jets now in the interests of our future economic perspex. You can plainly see how it makes sense.

yours maximim respectively,
Lay Ropez (99%)
although it has since occurred to me Reagan's alternative reality delusions may still be believed by ray and his herd of ilk.

There is a solution to this issue that makes the Government's apparently unattainable goals somewhat more reasonable.

1) We're at Peak Oil now. This means higher prices; which provides more incentive for efficiency gains coupled with demand destruction. IEA project OECD oil useage to have peaked already.

2) The increasing demand for fossil fuel from Asia, notably China, combined with the increasing price of fossil fuels as users switch from oil (e.g. heating oil). This means higher prices in the other fossil fuels. Again efficiency and demand destruction reduce their use.

However the government cannot envisage discussing Peak Oil as a reality for fear of spooking the public and the markets. So they use climate change as a proxy for official policy that makes getting renewable energy and nuclear past planning blocks more easy. Also trying to prepare the population for a serious move away from carbon based fuels.

Of course demand destruction in practice can be economically damaging, especially for fossil fuels which have so far proven fairly demand inelastic w.r.t. price. And it remains to be seen how much efficiency and renewables can ameliorate the situation. Nuclear takes a long time to commission, and we've yet to see how far Fukushima has damaged it's acceptibility.

I suspect that this is a government target that may actually be achieved. But less through choice than through circumstance.

[A possibly cunning plan. Unfortunately the reason fuels price is so high is because people are using a lot of them, worldwide. And high oil price will drive tar sands etc production, which makes even more CO2 -W]