UK climate policy: For the long haul

29th January 2021

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Victoria Pearson

Andrew Jordan and Brendan Moore explain why climate policy must strike the right balance between durability and flexibility

Climate change politics went into overdrive in 2019. Born out of a desire to limit warming to 1.5°C, and pushed hard by radical activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, politicians raced to adopt net-zero targets. By the time Joe Biden takes control of the White House, most of the world’s largest economies will have some type of net-zero target in place, representing well over 60% of global emissions.

These long-term targets are being supplemented by interim targets for 2030 and 2040. In late 2020, Boris Johnson committed the UK to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030, relative to 1990 levels. In 2021 the EU will endeavour to adopt a Climate Law committing the bloc to achieve reductions of “at least 55%” by 2030, and climate neutrality by 2050.

The problem is that these efforts are just targets. The UN Environment Programme’s 2020 emissions gap analysis underlines the need for “strong near-term policies and action” to ensure interim and net-zero targets remain “feasible and credible”. At present there is a yawning gap between long-term targets and existing policies. New policies that reduce emissions from industry, transport and homes are urgently required. As Greta Thunberg put it, “distant hypothetical targets are being set, and big speeches are being given” – but when it comes to the action we need, “we are still in a state of complete denial”. In its 2019 net-zero report, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) sounded a warning, stating that current UK policy was “insufficient for even the existing targets”.

Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan on the road to net-zero and the EU’s 2019 European Green Deal contain myriad policy promises but are essentially vision statements. The UK has since published an energy white paper, and in 2021, the Treasury will release a net-zero review alongside government strategies on forestry, national infrastructure, industrial decarbonisation, aviation, heat and buildings. However, much more will be needed.

Built to last

Current policy efforts are deficient on two grounds. First, there are not enough specific policies. Academic research such as Shaikh et al.’s ‘Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from national climate legislation’ has revealed that although global adoption of climate laws grew rapidly before the Paris Summit, it has since tailed off alarmingly. The CCC returned to the matter in its sixth carbon budget report, devoting one of two background reports to setting new policies and concluding that the delivery of net-zero “requires major policy strengthening across the economy”.

The second deficiency is the lack of policy durability. A durable policy is one that endures and is influential over time. Although there is no widely accepted minimum time threshold, it is often taken to be at least one electoral cycle, ideally two. However, in relation to a really long-term challenge such as climate change, even two electoral cycles is an insufficient threshold. Unlike the constant churn characterising many areas of policy development, climate policies must nurture a society-wide expectation that total decarbonisation has not only commenced, but will persist to the end of this century: a tall order.

In the past, too little policy has been durable. In our book Durable by Design? we document the constant changes that have affected EU policies on emissions trading, car emissions and biofuels since 1990, some of which have sapped investor confidence and confused consumers. In the UK, the Science and Technology Parliamentary Select Committee documented 10 key areas in which UK policy had “delayed, cut back or undermined carbon reductions”.

The natural response to these two deficiencies is to make new policies as durable and ‘locked in’ as possible. This could be done by making targets legally binding, then backfilling them with new policies that contain more binding targets, pegged as far into the future as possible. More control could be taken out of politicians’ hands and given to independent agencies such as the CCC.

In our view, though, this strategy risks making policy inflexible, in danger of being overtaken by new scientific information or technologies. Removing the opportunity to revise policies increases the odds of ’policy drift’ – when policies struggle to keep up as the world changes around them.

“Constant changes to EU policies on emissions trading, car emissions and biofuels have sapped investor confidence and confused consumers”

Flexibility devices

If the ideal solution is policy that is both durable and flexible, how can the right balance be achieved in practice? In the past, the UK was locked into the EU’s approach. Durability was facilitated by first establishing long-term targets, then putting together a suite of new policies to achieve them. Policymaking and target setting thus went hand in hand. Moreover, the task of formulating new proposals was passed to independent bodies such as the European Commission, supported by reporting from the independent European Environment Agency.

Flexibility was introduced via two routes. First, specific policies included review clauses that triggered a policy evaluation at a fixed point in time, leading to a new round of policy formulation. In Durable by Design? we call these ‘flexibility devices’. These encourage formulators to regularly revisit and revise a policy’s design without completely disrupting it. Second, broader policy packages were adjusted every time the EU set a new long-term policy objective. This process is under way right now; throughout 2021 the Commission will review EU climate policies to ensure they align with and support the bloc’s net-zero target.

The EU approach makes a virtue of the fact that policy has many different working parts, ranging from long-term high-level targets to the selection and calibration of specific policy instruments such as regulation. We call this approach ‘active durability’ – combining different policy elements to ensure the overall package (rather than any individual policy element) is durable enough to absorb some modifications and still accomplish desired targets.

The UK is no longer a member of the EU, and now has an opportunity to craft its own approach to balancing policy flexibility and durability. The building blocks will soon be in place: a binding net-zero target, an interim target for 2030 and a system of carbon budget setting overseen by the CCC. The next challenge is to find a way to tie these building blocks to the long list of policies referenced in the 10-point plan.

The UK could borrow from the EU’s strategy (‘active durability’), or invent its own way, to paraphrase the futurist Alvin Toffler, of ‘thinking about the big policy things while doing the small things, so that all the small things continue to go in the right direction’. Whichever it selects, speed is of the essence. The 2020s will be a critical decade for climate change policy..

More information

Read the 10 areas of policy shortfall identified by the Science and Technology Parliamentary Select Committee at.

Andrew Jordan and Brendan Moore are associate director and senior research associate respectively at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, and co-authors of Durable by Design? Policy Feedback in a Changing Climate. Further details on the book and to read open access chapters visit:

Image credit: iStock


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