Lord Deben, or the Rt Hon John Selwyn Gummer, is the current chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). He is also chair of the sustainability consultancy Sancroft International, honorary president of the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International) and a non-executive director of the Catholic Herald newspaper. Gummer was a Conservative MP from 1970-1974 and from 1979-2010. From 1993-1997, he served as the Secretary of State for the Environment.
In Part 1, Lord Deben discusses the Conservative party’s attitude to climate change, the forthcoming UK general election, “green crap”, the fifth carbon budget and fracking…
CB: As a Conservative peer and former minister, please can you explain the various dynamics and tensions at play within your own party when it comes to tackling climate change? You have the Lawsons and the Ridleys on the one side, and the Barkers and Rudds on the other. Why has it become such a problematic issue for certain sections of your party?
LD: I’m not sure that it has really in that sort of way. I mean, the truth is that the problem with climate change is that it demands a long-term solution, which is also a consistent solution. We’re talking about cutting our emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Now, for those for whom planning is a dangerous word because you want the market to work effectively and that what planning often does is to second guess the market and then find itself wrong. This concept of having to deal in the long term is simply very difficult to grasp and, of course, the considerable efforts of those who don’t believe in climate change and to try to undermine the basic science has had its effect. It’s becoming less and less, but it isn’t instinctively something which people on the very extreme right find easy to accept. For most of us, though – for most of the party – it is very clear that we are a party that’s got a name, called the Conservatives. It’s about conserving. It’s about passing onto the next generation something better than we received. And if you are threatened with this existential threat, not one that we’ve ever really seen before, and you know what is happening, and you do have to take the measures. Now, the way that we would then interpret it is that what you want is a framework, but within that you make the market work as effectively as possible, because nothing is strong enough, except the market, to deliver what you want. So, that’s why we would be seeking for carbon markets demanding that you don’t become prescriptive about how we’re going to meet the requirements, but you let all sorts of generating systems operate, but you have a carbon intensity target so you make them realise that if you have wind or nuclear, or anything else, this is a competitive market and you want people to find ways to delivering this as effectively as possible, and you don’t want to be prescriptive. So, in that sense, for all parts of the Conservative party, this is a market-based solution.
CB: How do you think climate change will be an issue at the general election? For example, UKIP are calling for the Climate Change Act to be scrapped. So, how do you respond to this, and more widely how do you feel climate change will be part of the general election?
LD: Well, I think first of all, we’re very unlikely to have a situation where any of the three main parties suggest anything other than a continuation of the present system. It is interesting: it is seven years since we passed the Climate Change Act and for the most part the consensus has continued very strongly indeed. This government has, of course, not done everything that I’d like it to do and nor did the previous government. I’m very independent about this and don’t want in anyway to be biased in favour of any of the parties. But the three main parties are really committed and the fact that we’ve got, what, Â£7.6 billion towards decarbonisation, that we’ve got the fourth carbon budget reaffirmed, that we’ve actually got electricity market reform. All those things are the practical statements. I think sometimes the Green movement wants more speeches about it, but I’m much more interested in the facts. I mean in general. So, I don’t think in the centre of the campaign will be climate change, because the campaign will be about the economy. It’s bound to be, that where the centre of it will be. And it may be also party about the National Health Service and a number of other things, but it’s not going to be about climate change. I don’t think that. I don’t think that UKIP is going to drive the agenda. What UKIP is, is a bag into which people who feel fed-up place themselves. That’s what it is, a bag. And I don’t think it’s climate change that’s going to be the issue. I mean, they’ll be talking about immigration, of course, and then they’ll be talking about the European Union. I think there is no single policy on which they are right, and they’re wrong on climate change, as they are on all these other policies, but I don’t see it being a major issue in the election. I mean, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be. I’m just saying that because it is a consensus issue for the three main parties.
CB: But the way that UKIP sometimes view it through the prism of windfarms and onshore wind, you don’t think that narrative might bring the wider question of climate policies into the mix, or do you think it still will remain away from the economy and the NHS and others?
LD: No, I don’t see this is going to be brought into the middle of the campaign. I mean, you never know. “Events, dear boy. Events,” said [Harold] Macmillan, So something might happen which would prove me wrong. But in the present circumstances, I don’t think so. I think it becomes more and more clear that if you’re going to meet your climate objectives, and all three parties are committed to that, if you’re going to do that then you’ve got to think seriously about how you do that. And there will be all sorts of arguments, about the cost of nuclear, for example, and whether it is economically efficient not have any more windfarms. That’s going to be an argument and a discussion. But I don’t think it’s going to be a serious part of the election.
CB: Energy bills are beginning to fall after years of rises, largely due to the fall in gas and oil prices. Will the so-called “green crap” narrative promoted by some in the media and beyond now become more diluted as a result? If so, how will the intertwined discussion about climate and energy policies begin to shift?
LD: Well, my view about the energy bills is that it always was a fraudulent argument, because it was always an attempt to suggest that it was the extra green costs that were pushing up bills and we know that’s not true. We know that the major cost – by far, the major cost – was the increase in basic prices of oil and gas. That’s the reality. And the actual cost of the real green measures is very small indeed and it’s not going to go rising. It’s a relatively small amount going ahead. So I’ve always thought that, in the end, truth will out. There was a period in which the newspapers were able to make this pretence, but it’s over. So I don’t see that as being the issue. Of course, the “green crap” phrase itself was a total fraud. I mean it wasn’t true, and it wasn’t said by the people it was said to be said by. Particularly, they tried to say it by several people when they found each one of them, not only disowned it, but clearly hadn’t said it. The big thing, though, is that it reminds us all the time that we have to do things in a cost effective way and the Climate Change Committee has a commitment to do that, and I’m always re-looking at things and seeing whether we’ve got the cost-effective mechanisms right. Sometimes we go for big things, instead of picking off the low-hanging fruit, and I’m very keen that we should do that. We don’t want to get to a low-carbon economy an expensive way. We want to get to a low-carbon economy the cheapest, effective way. Sometimes that means doing things which are a bit more expensive. Sometimes it means choosing one route rather than another, which may be, for the time being, a bit more expensive, but then that’s what happens in life. But we ought not to ever spend money we don’t need to spend, because it’s not our money.
CB: At the end of this year, the CCC will publish its advice for the fifth carbon budget for the period 2028-2032. Given the political reaction to the fourth carbon budget, how are you preparing the ground for the next one? For example, are you already in dialogue with the Treasury around how its models climate policies?
LD: Well, I’m not sure that in the discussions on the fourth carbon budget there was any serious criticism of the mechanisms which we use, so I don’t think we’re in the serious business of a contradiction with anything anybody else does. The Treasury has a proper role: to make sure that we do carry out our cost-effectiveness. But it accepts that its role is not about laying down the carbon budget. The carbon budget is actually put down by us and once Parliament has accepted it, it is, of course, for Parliament to accept it. But when Parliament has accepted it then it is actually the Law and it can’t be changed, unless we say that it ought to be changed. So, I think there is a real issue here, but it’s a real issue about getting cost-effectiveness to work, that’s what the issue is about. It’s not about having different models, and I don’t think that the Treasury would ever claim that.
CB: Do you think the – for want of a better word – the battle over the fourth carbon budget and the result, as you said, the affirmation of it, do you think that has reinforced and shored-up the mandate and the role of the CCC in the way the wider political community views the CCC?
LD: Well, I find it difficult to talk about a battle, because I mean what happened was, that as the Climate Change Act envisages, because your budgets are so far ahead, it’s not unreasonable to regard them again and say, well, “is everything the same”? The Climate Change Act does lay down what everything means there. It means the basis upon which you created the carbon budget in the first place. And I think it was perfectly right for the Treasury to ask, and indeed us to offer, to look at that again, and we did that and showed that there was no change sufficient to make any alteration. If there were any possibility of alteration it would be to tighten it rather than loosen it, and that was the advice we gave. Now, there is no mechanism for changing it if we don’t give the advice that is needs to be changed. But it was right that the Treasury should look at it because that’s its job. I don’t find it in any way upsetting, and we have nothing, there was no difficulty between us on it. We presented the evidence and presented the case, said what we thought and made it clear that legally, therefore, we couldn’t change it, but the Treasury rightly then decided: yes, that’s right, we accept that.
CB: But the step from the third to the fourth carbon budget was quite a shift. The fourth to the fifth, presumably, given the trajectory we need to be on to decarbonise, is going to be probably an even heavier lift, in some respects. So, do you anticipate it being a dialogue – let’s call is a dialogue – between the CCC, the Treasury and other stakeholders in this? Is that going to be a more acute discussion?
LD: Well, it’s bound to be more acute the tougher things are, and, as you move along, the low-hanging fruit have been picked. But there’s a second reason why it’s bound to be more acute and that is the further you go ahead the more you have to take for granted that you have got to the stage before. And that’s further ahead and so you’ve got to say to people: well, this is where we will be in 2028, so therefore we have to be somewhere else in 2033/34. I mean it’s a long way ahead. That makes it difficult for many people who really don’t want to think that far ahead and who, somehow or other, resent that. Well, we have to overcome that. It’s the same problem, but magnified, that we’ve always had. So, my own view is that we will have it tough, but as long as we get the figures right, and as long as we have worked it as thoroughly as we always have done, and as long as it stands up to all the criticism, then I think in the end that we’ll come to an acceptance.
CB: To date, the debate in the UK around fracking has largely been limited to addressing localised environmental impacts. But the recent Infrastructure Bill debate – particularly, the Environmental Audit Committee’s reaction – has thrown a sharper light on the climate impacts of exploiting shale gas. The CCC’s view has been that the disciplined, time-limited exploitation of shale gas is compatible with the UK’s carbon budget. But much of this gas would find it’s way onto international markets. How is shale gas compatible with the IPCC’s global carbon budget?
LD: Well, I think first as well you’ve properly described the fact that the Climate Change Committee takes the view that because we have said that we will need gas into the 2030s, it is unreasonable to suggest that some sort of gas is unacceptable, and other sorts of gas are acceptable. That’s the first bit. The second bit is we’ve no idea at what price fracked gas can be produced in Britain, because we haven’t done the work to verify the existence and the nature of the gas that is there. We don’t know, for example, whether some of the gas might not be used for feedstock rather than for heating. And so it seems to us to be a pretty peculiar argument to say that fracking is unacceptable in all circumstances. But once you’ve said it’s acceptable, then you have to say under what terms. And it’s only acceptable under very strict environmental terms. We’re pleased with the amendments which the government has put into the infrastructure bill. We’ve worked on some of those with the Government and we see that as being a satisfactory package. No one would suggest that you would absolutely perfectly agree with everything that people have done, but roughly speaking it’s not bad. The two questions are: first, is this replacement from other gas, or is it an addition, too. Well, I’m not sure you can ever say that very clearly, but if you’re talking about the strategic defence of our interests in Britain and in Europe, then not to rely on gas coming from countries who are unstable or unfriendly seems to me a perfectly sensible thing to do. And, yes, if the demand for gas is reducing all the time because climate change rules are pressing in and you get the right budgets and you get the right carbon markets then it won’t be an addition, it’ll be a replacement. So, it’s the international agreements from Paris and onwards that will be crucial, and in Britain it’s the carbon budget, and we’re making it absolutely clear – and the government has accepted – that it has to be done within the carbon budget, and the carbon budget won’t be expanded because we’ve got this gas. But frankly, I don’t think anyone would understand an argument which said it’s alright to have Russian gas, but it isn’t alright to have your own gas. I think that’s not sensible. But there is a last bit which we are very keen on, which is the time-limited bit, in the sense that we do want to make it clear that this is an interim situation. So, people who pay to put-down infrastructure which manifestly is based upon the continued use of gas well into the late 30s really do have to understand that that isn’t going to provide a return. You need to run the whole thing on the basis that this is an interim offering, except that which, of course, provides a feedstock. So, if there is that which will provide feedstock in Britain that will be very good for Britain…
Main image: Film camera.
The interview was conducted by Leo Hickman and took place on 10 February 2015 at the London office of Sancroft International.
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