The Climate Bill bear trap waiting for Brown

Published in The Telegraph, on 3rd May 2007.

Tony Blair may be almost gone, but his shadow will continue to fall across Gordon Brown’s path. This is particularly true when it comes to climate change.

Blair’s global climate leadership is an enduring hallmark of his reign. He saw the issue early. He pushed it up the global agenda. He sustained his commitment. He is rightly seen as responsible for the current political impulse to tackle the problem.

This presents Brown with a hard act to follow. Expectations of vigorous climate leadership from Britain are high, both at home and abroad.

The Prime Minister is not known for his attention to detail. His adventurous approach left many gaps to be filled later but it did create and sustain political momentum.

This is not Brown’s style. He is a more patient man, reluctant to move before he is sure of his ground. Certainty is not a common attribute of climate policy. It is a complex issue, blending science, economics, technology and geopolitics.

Nor is it cheap. To succeed we have to make our energy system carbon neutral by 2050, that makes the only real test of your climate policy how much, on what, by when.

It will be quickly noticed, by politicians and voters alike, if Brown fails to maintain the global lead on climate change created by his predecessor.

Brown has also been left a large bear trap in the form of the proposed Climate Bill. The claim that this, if enacted, would be the most progressive legislation on climate change anywhere in the world is justified. But it is also a potential nightmare for Brown both politically and substantively.

Politically, it is a gift to the Opposition. However ambitious the emissions reduction targets it proposes, they will be bid up from the comfortable irresponsibility of opposition. Substantively, if adopted as drafted, it will create an Environment Secretary second only in power to the Chancellor in his control of domestic policy.

This may not be an enticing prospect for someone known for his desire to maintain control. But watering it down will confirm many of the darker suspicions about what kind of Prime Minister he will be.

Additionally, it proposes an independent climate committee with powers to manage Britain’s carbon budget similar to those possessed by the Monetary Policy Committee. Quite how those powers are to be reconciled with another pet Brown innovation, the Independent Planning Commission, remains to be explored empirically during his time in office.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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