Today, Coalition ministers are expected to confirm the Government's ambitious framework for addressing climate change when they announce new targets for achieving their goals. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, there is a legal duty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in 2050 by 80 per cent from the 1990 base. In addition, a Committee on Climate Change has been established to set out five-yearly targets on the way to 2050 and to comment on progress. Furthermore, a wide range of measures has been introduced, at EU and national levels – the latest is the proposal for a floor price for carbon.
All this is based on a clear view of the science that is consistent with advice from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It has identified man-made emissions of CO₂ as the principal driver of the rise in temperature over the past century (about 0.7C). In one scenario, where we carry on as usual, the central projection for the rise is 1-1.5C by mid-century and 3C by end-century. However, if temperature rises more than 2C, serious impacts such as rising sea levels, drought, storms and damage to food supply will occur. The 80 per cent figure, therefore, is set at the level considered necessary to prevent this threshold being crossed.
On the face of it, this seems like a cohesive package: policy is aligned with scientific advice. But the Really Inconvenient Truth (not the one in Al Gore's film) is that this whole edifice is flawed and built on shaky foundations.
First, the science is nowhere near as conclusive as it is presented. Though there is no disagreement that CO₂ is a greenhouse gas, there is no consensus on the relationship between CO₂ and temperature. Many scientists also challenge the dominant role assigned to man-made CO₂, arguing that other variables such as the sun, cosmic rays, oceans and clouds have been underplayed. Given this, it is unwise of the Government to have placed such heavy bets on just one interpretation of the evidence.
Critics also point out that the correlation between the increase in CO₂ and temperature is far from straightforward. CO₂ concentrations have risen steadily since about 1940, but the rise in temperature started much earlier and has cycled around a gently rising trend. For example, after a rapid rise in temperature between 1970 and the late 1990s, there has been no increase in the past decade.
Second, there have been failings in the governance of science. Senior figures in our scientific establishment, rather than promoting challenge, have sought to close the debate down and tell us the science is settled. The gap between the IPCC's huge responsibilities to advise on one of the biggest issues of the day, and its competence to do so, is now so vast that it should be scrapped and replaced.
Third, the framework provided by the Climate Change Act takes no account of what other nations are doing. For a country like the UK, which produces only 2-3 per cent of global man-made emissions, this makes no sense. If we push too hard on decarbonisation, we will suffer double jeopardy: our energy-using industries will migrate and we may still need to invest heavily in adapting our infrastructure.
Fourth, the way in which the policy responses are being prioritised makes no sense. In a logical world, one would start with those technologies that are most effective in terms of cost per ton of CO₂ abated. But the EU renewables policy denies this logic. One set of technologies – in particular, wind – is guaranteed a market share and an indexed price regardless of how competitive it really is. Taking account of wind's intermittency, its cost per kilowatt hour (kwh) exceeds that of other low carbon sources. Wind capacity should not be confused with output.
Fifth, current policies are hugely unfair. Those with large properties or landholdings on which to install solar panels or wind turbines can earn 30p-40p per kwh, which is retailed at around 11p. The loss is paid for by a levy on all households and businesses. If you live in a tower block in Lambeth, you don't have much opportunity to share in this.
Finally, policies are failing to adapt to change, notably the impact of shale gas, which can make a huge contribution to carbon reduction with little extra cost.
We need an approach to the science that welcomes challenge from diverse points of view rather than seeking to suppress them, and which recognises the uncertainties that remain in distinguishing the relative contributions of man and nature.
From our politicians, officials and parliamentarians we require more rationality and curiosity and an end to alarmist propaganda. They should pay more attention to the national interest and less to cutting a dash as global evangelists.
In responding to the advice from the Committee on Climate Change on the next set of targets, the Government has an opportunity for a rethink. Instead, it seems likely that the requirements of keeping the Coalition together will take precedence.
Lord Turnbull was Permanent Secretary of the Department of the Environment 1994-98 and of HM Treasury 1998-2002; and Cabinet Secretary 2002-2005. He is a trustee of The Global Warming Policy Foundation and a fuller version of this article is on its website, www.thegwpf.org