The Committee on Climate Change at 10: achievements and challenges ahead

Professor Sam Fankhauser, Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change

There is cause for celebration at the Committee on Climate Change, arguably the most important institution in UK climate change policy. Later this year the CCC will be marking its ten-year anniversary. It has also announced the appointment of its new CEO, Chris Stark.

Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions are 42 % lower today than they were in 1990, and the CCC has been instrumental to this success. As the CCC approaches its 10th birthday it’s clear that a strong, trusted and independent CCC will be essential to stay the course and turn the UK into a climate-resilient, low-carbon economy.

The beginnings: the CCC was quick off the mark

The CCC was officially established by the Climate Change Act in November 2008. However, nine months before the CCC officially began its work, a ‘shadow’ committee was already up and running preparing the ground. It first met on 29 February 2008. I was one of the six inaugural members who gathered at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that day.

When the Act obtained royal assent on 26 November 2008, it took the newly established CCC less than a week to issue its first report. The report made recommendations on the UK’s emission targets for the years 2008 to 2022 – the first three carbon budgets. The budgets define the path towards a long-term emissions reduction target of 80 % or more by 2050, relative to 1990. The 2050 objective was also recommended by the CCC and is enshrined in the Climate Change Act.  The Adaptation Sub-Committee began its work in 2009.

During the early days, the CCC benefitted from an unprecedented political consensus. The Climate Change Act had near unanimous support. In the first and second readings of the Climate Change Bill in the House of Commons only 3 MPs voted against it. The CCC’s first chair, Lord Turner, could therefore work on the assumption that, if the analysis was sound, his advice would be followed. Accordingly, the focus was on analytical credibility. The CCC established an internal culture of “absolutely ruthless interrogation”, as one insider has told me.

Unprecedented consensus made for a CCC focused on analytical credibility

The creation of an independent, non-political body to monitor and advise on climate policy was a masterstroke. The Climate Change Act provides statutory guidelines on the long-term target, carbon budgets and adaptation. But it is the CCC that embodies the spirit of the Act and monitors adherence to its objectives on an on-going basis.

As part of a ten-year retrospective of the Climate Change Act, which will be published later this year, we have interviewed more than 30 senior officials, politicians and stakeholders who have been involved in the UK climate debate over the past ten years.

They are unanimous that the CCC is at the centre of climate change policy in the UK and are particularly complimentary about the analytical honesty and the rigour, which the CCC has brought to the debate.  There is still considerable misinformation in the public debate. A small band of noisy climate sceptics makes sure of this. But in policy circles the analysis of the CCC defines the discussion.

CCC reports provide an independent evidence base that is used on all sides of the debate and trusted in a way government information or NGO studies could never be.

Government officials told us how they treat the CCC “with enormous amounts of respect”.  Shadow ministers and back benchers rely on its analysis to hold the government to account. The devolved administrations routinely request its advice.  Industry stakeholders use the CCC both in their interactions with government and in internal discussions with senior management. No presentation on UK climate policy is now complete without at least one statistic from the CCC.

Protection against political short-termism

The creators of the Climate Change Act anticipated, rightly, that the political enthusiasm for climate policy would wax and wane. The CCC was set up in the expectation that an independent technical body would help to protect climate policy from these political mood swings.

To a large extent this has been achieved. The first two carbon budgets were met with relative ease and without a noticeable impact on the economy. Ambitious additional targets for the 2020s and early 2030s have been legislated in the 4th and 5th carbon budgets.  The CCC has been critical in securing this progress. However, its powers and its resolve are tested continuously.

Political headwinds started to emerge in 2011, around the discussion of the 4th carbon budget. The first National Adaptation Programme in 2013 was produced under an overtly climate-sceptic Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson MP. At the 2015 and 2017 general elections all major parties committed to the Climate Change Act, but an alarming gap has nevertheless opened between the emissions targets set in law and the policies put in place to deliver them. It took the government a full 15 months to publish its implementation plan for the 5th carbon budget.

Since 2012 the CCC has been chaired by a seasoned politician, Lord Deben, a prominent former environment secretary. Under his leadership the CCC consolidated its reputation for independent analysis, but it has also become more politically aware. This has been essential. Just being analytically right is no longer enough. The political argument also needs to be won.

Difficult times ahead

The CCC has been an immense success, but there is a sense that the sternest tests are yet to come. While the UK should meet the 3rd carbon budget, the government’s own analysis shows we are not on the right path to meet the 4th or 5th. To get back on track, attention will need to shift to sectors like heat, transport and land use, where emissions remain stubbornly high.

There is every reason to believe that the CCC will continue to keep up the pressure on the government.  The CCC is an advisory body, but its rigorous, scrupulously impartial and widely trusted analysis has the power to embarrass the government.  Civil society is keeping a close eye on whether its advice is followed.

If the UK meets its climate commitments, it will be in no small measure thanks to the CCC.

Sam Fankhauser is Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and Deputy Director of the ESRC-funded Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP), both at the London School of Economics. He served on the Committee on Climate Change from 2008 to 2016 and on the Adaptation Sub-Committee from 2009 to 2015.