Government in an age of Climate Emergency: Is it time for carbon budgets?

Ben Wray

Kick-starting our special week of coverage on climate emergency, CommonSpace editor Ben Wray asks whether we should be assessing government performance on climate change in the same way public finances are scrutinised?

WHAT if we thought about the task in front of us on climate change in a similar way George Osborne and other acolytes of the austerity agenda thought about government budgets after the financial crash?

The logic of Osbornomics went like this: Britain’s public debt is a danger to the financial security of the country, therefore we need to stop spending more than the state brings in through tax revenues. To achieve this we will cut public spending progressively until we achieve a budget surplus and the debt starts going down. 

As we have argued on CommonSpace regularly, Osbornomics is total nonsense. Not only is public debt not a serious danger to Britain’s financial security (at least compared to private debt), the remedy – public service cuts – shrinks economic activity and thus reduces tax returns, meaning public services become a smaller part of the economy while national debt goes up, not down.

But let’s forget for the moment that Osbornomics was worse than useless when applied to public finances, and apply a similar logic to the climate crisis: we have to cut emissions rapidly to ensure human ecological sustainability into the future, and we have been given both a timeline and a target for how much we need to do this by and when from the IPCC.

What we’d get is a carbon budget that we have left to spend, anything over which goes beyond the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees limit and into the catastrophic territory for human life. We’d then have a rate at which we need to cut our annual spend on this carbon budget in order to make the necessary cuts within the timeframe the IPCC has set out. Put into one graph, our carbon austerity agenda may look something like this.

What this graph, tweeted out by Greta Thunberg last week, shows is that worldwide we need to make an average of 18 per cent cuts to our carbon budget every year, starting now. We will have exhausted our carbon budget in just nine years if we continue our spending profligacy at the rate we are going at right now. 

Unlike with Osborne’s austerity agenda, this carbon budget really is the whole picture: we really do need to make these cuts this rapidly to the carbon budget to stop climate disaster. It’s carbon cuts, or bust.

The reason it may be helpful to think in these terms is two-fold. Firstly, we are all conditioned to think in terms of our own financial limits. Osbornomics was not really about economics as about a communications strategy: by comparing the budget of a government to that of a household, we could all relate to the idea of austerity as we all know what it means to run out of cash. It didn’t matter that the comparison has no bearing on reality, it took an abstract concept of fiscal austerity and made it seem real to people. Emissions cuts are just as abstract to most people: you can’t feel them, you can’t touch them. So thinking about tackling climate change in the terms of financial limits helps to grasp the necessity and urgency of the situation.

Secondly, we have definitively entered the  epoch of climate rhetoric, where politicians use the language of climate activists, and even embrace long-term climate reduction targets, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of government action in the here and now, nothing – or at least nowhere near enough – happens. It’s great that a climate emergency has been declared, that the Scottish Government has upped its ambitions to be net-zero by 2045, that the First Minister supports the idea of a “Scottish Green Deal”, but if we continue to judge government’s climate record by their rhetoric and their long-term targets, we will fail. 

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So we need a new basis for assessing the performance of governments on tackling climate change, one that is as robust and immediate as what we use to assess public finances. Analysing the annual carbon budget gives us a general metric which we can hold politicians to account over, and if they don’t make the necessary cuts we can probe them as to why and what they plan to do about it. As climate change goes up the political agenda, assessing the relative merits of politicians in terms of the action they are willing to take can’t just be based on who has the toughest rhetoric or most eye-catching policies – they have to tell us exactly how they will cut the carbon budget, and where those cuts will come from. Think-tanks and NGO’s should come up with assessments of how much of the carbon budget can be cut from specific policy decisions. The simplicity of the metric adds to its potency.

The UK Government actually has carbon budgets, but they are based on five year time scales, only aim for 80 per cent emissions reduction, and give themselves until 2050 to do this by. The Committee for Climate Change therefore argues that the UK Government needs a carbon budget cut of just 3 per cent per year by 2050, but this takes no account of the need for the majority of global emissions to be cut by 2030, nor does it account for the UK having one of the largest carbon footprints historically, and therefore should be required to make an above average contribution to global emissions reductions. And the current carbon budgets aren’t part of the Chancellor’s Budget and Autumn Statement like public finances are. 

What about the Scottish Government? The new net-zero by 2045 target includes emissions cuts of 70 per cent by 2030. The most recent recording of greenhouse gas emissions reductions in Scotland in December last year showed a 49 per cent reduction as of 2016, therefore an extra 20 per cent would require around about 2 per cent every year for the next decade. That sounds doable, but government legislation takes time to get through the parliament and once it does, it can then take time to be implemented and have effect. Infrastructure decisions taken in the past five years can be locked in for the next decade or so. And, as the Committee on Climate Change reported last year, in the areas that now need to see big emissions cuts in Scotland – energy, transport, agriculture and housing being the big four – there has been next to no progress  over the past five years. It’s not easy to make any economy and society change rapidly, never mind one that is governed by a parliamentary democracy with elections at regular intervals, in which most economic resources are controlled by private interests.

READ MORE: ‘Elephant in the room’: Report finds Scotland must choose between North Sea industry collapse or green transition

During a debate on the climate emergency earlier this month, climate change minister Roseanna Cunningham said that she did not support the idea of combining together emissions reduction targets with action plans for making the reductions happen, arguing that rapid technological changes means that setting plans in stone can be a hostage to fortune. This sounds a little bit too convenient: surely a baseline plan based on existing technologies could be established, then updated as technological progress happens? It’s too easy for governments to take the praise of having ambitious emissions reduction targets without also taking the pain of the tough decisions now to get those reductions moving quickly. 

The most notable policy announcement to follow Nicola Sturgeon’s climate emergency declaration has been to reverse plans to cut air passenger tax by 50 per cent, a shift that is welcome but will not cut any emissions since the policy had not been introduced yet. Sturgeon has made clear that the next Programme for Government, probably in September, will be focused on new climate change policies, with all areas of government up for assessment. Again, this sounds promising, but it surely has to be held to some sort of metric other than how much the new announcements grab the headlines and are praised by the UN.

The Scottish Greens have said they will not support the SNP minority government’s budget for 2020/21 if it does not prove it is serious on the Climate Emergency. They have so far defined this as all parts of the budget being up for discussion, including a root and branch review into transport infrastructure; a Green New Deal for Scotland which would constitute a 10 year plan to create thousands of low carbon jobs and reduce emissions by 80 per cent in 2030; acknowledge that fossil fuels in the north sea must be left in the ground, reviewing its support for maximum extraction and bring forward transition plans for north sea oil workers. 

This constitutes some of the commitments which will obviously be needed to turn words into actions in Scotland’s climate emergency, but what it would mean in terms of the nuts and bolts of the spending allocations in Finance Minister Derek Mackay’s next Budget is not clear. A carbon budget alongside or integrated into the financial budget could set requirements on climate action which broad-based commitments perhaps couldn’t do. As the urgency on climate change rises faster than the temperature, the need to hold politicians’ feet to the fire in ever-more exacting ways  grows in importance too.

Picture courtesy of Carbon Visuals

CS FORUM 30 MAY: Climate Emergency – how do we turn words into actions?