The passing of the Climate Change Act five years ago was a landmark in the development of UK climate policy, introducing for the first time a statutory target for Greenhouse Gas Emission reduction of 80 per cent between 1990 and 2050. Throughout the Bill’s passage through Parliament, the target had been set at 60 per cent, until the government advisory body, the Committee for Climate Change, recommended an increased ambition as a response to developments in the science.
The structure of the letter is telling, focusing heavily on the scientific evidence and the technical (some might say, theoretical) feasibility of attaining the target but not attending to the social dimensions of such a radical policy proposal. Roger Pielke Jr. has written previously about whether the 80% target is plausible. Here, I will instead focus on the logic behind this ‘targetism’ approach, and how a linear translation of scientific evidence into managerial targets is an ineffective way of using evidence in policy. For such a high stakes social issue, the poverty of the current legislative approach should be of great concern.
Targets have become increasingly prevalent in public policy since the 1990s, with the Blair Government famously enthusiastic about &lsquoerformance management’ as a way of ensuring that policy priorities were delivered. “Welcome to targetworld” as Christopher Hood described New Labour’s centralised target ethos, where targets were linked to dedicated budgets allocated by the Treasury. Want to improve the chances of funding your policy priority? Then provide the Treasury a quantitative target by which you can be evaluated. In this context, the attraction of a ‘one number’ target for greenhouse gas emissions is plain. For those advocating environmental protection, climate change was a policy issue more closely aligned with targetism than the previous ‘big idea’ of sustainable development, increasingly derided as too fuzzy a concept to transfer into effective policy. Rather than the messy balancing of economic, environmental and social goals for sustainability, climate policy provided a logic of turning to science for numbers which could be transplanted into managerial targets. The process is cemented in the Climate Change Act, which states that such numbers can only be changed only as a result of developments in scientific knowledge or international law.
Focusing on greenhouse gas emissions alone does, of course, make sense in terms of tackling climate change, and the role of scientific evidence is vital in determining what we do and don’t know about the physical processes involved. However, the Act’s focus on such evidence to the exclusion of social and political factors risks destroying the very policy agenda it seeks to promote. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, as Hood points out in his article, targetism encourages gaming of the system, exemplified in the early 2000s by the adjustment of hospital waiting lists to meet waiting time targets. Cutting economic activity and reducing public services would both contribute to cutting emissions – but are they policies that are really intended to be encouraged? For local authorities, the reporting of certain categories of their own emission sources has become voluntary, providing an added incentive to outsource services as a way of getting emissions ‘off the books’. If one wanted a climate change target, perhaps carbon intensity would be a more appropriate indicator, promoting a logic of efficiency and ‘decoupling’ economic activity from emissions, rather than closing down or exporting production entirely.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, targetism belies climate change’s status as a complex social phenomenon. It implies that climate change can be reduced to the level of another indicator on the global data dashboard. Rather than trying to express climate change as a number, social science research, including my own within local authorities, has shown that climate change has multiple meanings for people across time and space: a business opportunity or an unwanted interference, a line on a spreadsheet or a consequence of global development patterns, imperfect expert prediction or near certain catastrophic threat. Such multifarious meanings will not be reconcilable, but through democratic discussion and debate society can try and make better sense of what climate change means for the past, present and future. As Amanda Machin explains in her book Negotiating Climate Change, disagreement, not consensus, is the spark to such discussions, which in turn can lead to more fruitful responses to the issue. This is where the Climate Change Act fails, in presenting climate change as an issue only open to influence by scientific and political elites, rather than as a legitimate subject of public debate.
So where does this leave climate policy in the UK today? Despite rumblings on the Conservative backbenches, there does not appear to be any imminent attempt to repeal the Climate Change Act. However, the Committee for Climate Change has been unable to mask its frustration at the rate of implementation in its recent reports to Parliament. The Act risks becoming irrelevant unless it is reformed to make it more responsive to social concerns, articulated through democratic methods more effective than the blunt tool of two general elections per decade. In seeking to be scientifically robust, the Act has been made politically brittle. And that is a precarious position for a document so symbolically important in the climate debate.