Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Climate Change and British Politics

The Economist | Britain decides that climate change is too important to leave to the politicians. “GIVE me chastity and continence, but not yet,” Saint Augustine besought God more than a millennium ago. Those worried by global warming but unwilling to change their behaviour take a similar approach. Evidence of the damage that economic activity does to the planet is mounting, but given the cheapness and convenience of fossil fuels, the temptation to avoid tackling climate change for just another year (and another and another) is hard to resist. This is even truer as economic woes mount.

Britain’s government thinks it has a solution, and it is one that so far no other country has adopted. The approach is rather like that of a desperate dieter padlocking his pantry. If all goes according to plan, a climate-change bill will be passed next week that takes the power to set carbon-reduction goals away from politicians and enshrines them in law. A climate-change committee will recommend five-year carbon budgets for different parts of the economy, such as power generation, transport and manufacturing, with the ultimate goal of cutting emissions by 80% from their 1990 levels by the time 2050 rolls around.

Modelled partly on the Bank of England’s Monetary-Policy Committee, which was set up in 1997 to take interest-rate decisions out of the hands of ministers, the new Committee on Climate Change (now headed by Lord Turner, the head of Britain’s financial regulator and before that the author of important pension reforms) will publish on December 1st the first three carbon budgets, covering the period until 2022. Other countries may have more eye-catching ambitions than Britain (Sweden, for instance, aspires to phase out fossil-fuel use entirely), but nowhere else will the pledges have the force of law. Foreign governments and green groups are watching the British experiment with interest.