Quite suddenly, almost everyone seems to agree that climate change is a serious problem. After decades of debate and denial, the many and various interested parties are rushing to respond. Everything that could conceivably mitigate global warming is applauded with little or no qualification.
I am worried about the consensus on climate change. I am concerned that the clamour for action will stifle debate about solutions. It is difficult nowadays to find a politician or business leader in the UK who will not champion the need for action. But it has become just as difficult to find anyone who is prepared to put a head above the parapet and challenge some of the crazier ideas that are being proposed.
In spite of the gravity of the problem, it is an exciting time for those who have long advocated measures to tackle climate change. The remarkable work of Sir Nicholas Stern and the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has moved us beyond the debate over the validity of the science. Now we are discussing how to become a low-carbon economy.
But the sheer power of the arguments in these reports may, I fear, unleash huge demand for more regulation. If every suggestion made by every policy expert or politician is hurried through, we should not be surprised if the new rules are inconsistent, mistargeted and disproportionate.
The Better Regulation Commission reviewed the regulatory implications of the Stern report. Today it issues a strong warning to all: make haste in creating law and pay the high price of poor regulation. A good policy outcome depends on the quality of the regulatory framework crafted to implement it. Ill-conceived regulations will lead to bad outcomes. Failing to live up to expectations, and consequently losing public support, is a real possibility that must be avoided at all costs.
We have devised a series of tests for climate policy that should be used by all who contribute to the debate.
Ensure that climate policy is consistent with a healthy UK economy.
The UK is responsible for just 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases. It is thus likely that the country’s biggest impact will be as an international champion of change. Its influence will depend on how realistic and effective its domestic policy is. The measures introduced must make economic sense and prove that a low-carbon economy is an achievable goal. As the Stern review emphasises, we must find a way to be “green and grow”. Only this will convince the more sceptical world leaders that action to limit carbon emissions is practical and affordable.
Stick to a well-developed strategy and avoid piecemeal announcements.
Climate change is a long-term issue that must not be used as a short-term political tool. We should avoid rushing into a plethora of schemes before finding out what works. Over-hyping the risks of climate change could also be counter-productive and leave people with a sense of powerlessness. This goes for non-governmental groups as well as the UK government, which should not allow itself to be pressured into making rash commitments.
Be efficient and always test policy against a carbon price benchmark.
Addressing climate change will be costly, but we must avoid bankrupting ourselves. Similarly, there is no point in finding that a policy initiated in one part of the regulatory system is contradicted in another. Government should review policy to see where conflicts lie. The best way to ensure long-term co-operation is to keep things simple and as pain free as possible.
Do not use climate change as justification for other policy goals.
Climate change cuts across many policy areas. This does not mean it can be used as a justification for achieving other objectives. Public trust could easily be lost if measures are presented as environmentally beneficial when they are nothing of the sort.
If a policy does not work, change it.
There will be some hits and some misses in developing a new area of policy. Governments must be tolerant of constructive criticism when policy initiatives fail.
If you are thinking about giving up anything for Lent, then why not make it “regulatory excess”? I challenge all those involved in climate change policy to indulge in some regulatory stock-taking, contemplation and perhaps even a little abstinence. As the climate agenda moves forward, the regulatory framework must keep up and evolve with our ambition. The issue is too important to risk making a mess of it.
The writer is chairman of the Better Regulation Commission, an independent body that advises the UK government
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