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Dawn of carbon budgeting: now every tonne counts
posted by Bryony on 14th Jul 2009

The publication of the government's climate change strategy tomorrow should herald the beginning of a new era in the fight against climate change. While the public-facing, energy-saving policies may catch the headlines, what is going on behind the scenes is in reality more important.

In order to meet the requirement of the Climate Change Act, and the carbon budgets it created, the government has had to adopt a new approach to managing carbon. In this new regime every tonne counts and all government departments with an influence over policies affecting emissions will need to play their part in keeping reductions on track. The mechanics of how this will work are not yet clear but it is certain that climate change is now a shared responsibility across the entire government. Departments falling behind will need to take corrective action or face the consequences, which could mean finding money to pay for emissions reductions in other parts of the world. This should serve to focus the minds of ministers and permanent secretaries.

When Friends of the Earth wrote the first report advocating carbon budgets in 2005, which I co-authored, we were seeking to cause exactly this kind of change in the government's attitude to climate change policy. We wanted them to adopt a more holistic approach that took into account the effect of all policies, not just the limited climate-specific policies it had introduced, and also, importantly, the trends that were causing emissions to rise, where often there were no policies in place to counter them.

The principle behind carbon budgeting is simply that emissions must stay within a pre-determined limit or compensating actions, such as payment for emission reductions elsewhere, must be taken. This was meant to engender the feeling that every tonne counts, since allowing an emission to take place creates a liability against the budget, whereas, investing in emissions savings effectively creates an asset. This was intended to force the government to think long term and to break the deadlock that the Treasury then had on climate policy, by expressing the problem in a language they understood. In other areas of public life the principle of borrowing to invest in long-term projects was accepted but, when it came to climate, the mantra was keep it cheap, which led to an over-reliance on emissions trading to deliver the cheapest possible short-term solutions anywhere in the world.

With a clear framework dictating that emissions must, one way or another, go down, the smart minds in the Treasury can now apply themselves to working out how to uncover emissions savings in Britain for less than it would cost to keep buying them overseas. This shouldn't be difficult as we've really only just got started and there is still plenty of low-hanging fruit. They will also quickly work out that it is far more sensible to invest at home rather than allowing cash continually to flow overseas, at a time when we need all the inward investment we can get.

Increasing the efficiency with which we use energy and reduce wastage are both obvious candidates when it comes to low-cost solutions. Improving our building stock can also help to counteract rises in energy costs so it should be no surprise that these policies take centre stage in the government's strategy. Looking longer term it is clear that to get to a zero carbon Britain we will have to start by creating a zero carbon electricity system. Clean electricity, as opposed to the high-coal variety we currently use, can then be used to replace the fossil fuels we use to heat our homes and power our vehicles.

These are not radical new ideas – these aren't needed just yet – but they're not necessarily straightforward to achieve either. The government still needs to create a clear plan and to harness the power of the private sector to deliver its vision cost effectively. It also needs the buy-in of the public to do their part in embracing the changes we need to go through.

Tomorrow's publications should give us the first iteration of that plan – policies will not be written in stone and will no doubt flex and change as departments work out what works, and what doesn't, when it comes to staying within budget. But this could be the dawn of the first comprehensive, concerted attempt to tackle the problem of climate change – let's hope it works.

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