Rupert Darwall: From Covid to climate, the UK is handing policy to the unelected

  • Date: 16/12/20
  • Rupert Darwall, Real Clear Energy

Climate change sees more power being given to the administrative state.

Owen Humphreys/PA via AP

Boris Johnson looked awful: slumped on the frontbench, he was about to suffer the worst parliamentary revolt of his premiership. It was December 1 – less than a year on from his historic election triumph – and Parliament was debating the reimposition of regional Covid tiers just as England had emerged from a month-long lockdown. The prime minister had been forced into conceding the debate in return for Parliament agreeing to the lockdown, which had been strongly recommended by the government’s scientific advisers, a move that now appears to have been based on erroneous information.

If the prime minister had adjusted the tier system, he might have avoided the parliamentary debate that left his authority in tatters, with more than 50 of his Tories voting against the new restrictions. But being “led by the science,” as Johnson insists that he is, means handing control of policy to the scientists who nominally advise ministers. At least, that’s what’s suggested by the A in SAGE, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. The reality is different. SAGE takes the big Covid policy decisions, and the prime minister rubber stamps them. The result? Humiliation at the hands of his own MPs.

Having been fried in the pan of Covid policy, the prime minister is jumping into the fire of climate policy. Only two days later after the parliamentary Covid vote, Johnson announced that he was accelerating the sharpest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of any G20 nation – upping the current target of a 57% reduction of 1990 levels to 68% by 2030.Through most of this year, Covid has been the chief determinant of economic performance; once the post-Covid recovery is underway, however, decarbonization policy will increasingly become the biggest constraint on the economy.

British politicians have been lulled into false optimism by past performance. Between 2008 and 2018, Britain’s emissions fell by 28%, the fastest in the G20. This figure, however, reflects how the UN counts greenhouse gas emissions. The UN tabulates so-called territorial emissions – the annual quantities of greenhouse gases emitted from activities physically in the territory, along with net emissions from agriculture and land-use changes. It excludes emissions embedded in imports, which form part of a nation’s consumption emissions, a definition that offers a better measure of its carbon footprint.

Offshoring your manufacturing is one way to make yourself look like a climate hero. In 1990, the UN’s baseline year, the UK’s territorial emissions were 594.1 million metric tons. Its consumption emissions were 656.0 million metric tons – a gap of 61.9 million metric tons. After 1990, the two figures diverged, territorial emissions continuing a downward trend that had persisted for the previous two decades, while consumption emissions rose by 30.7%, peaking at 857.4 million metric tons in 2007 – opening up a colossal 316.6 million metric-ton gap. Since 2007, consumption emissions have started to fall and the gap has narrowed, though by 2015, they had only fallen back to their 1990 level, at 656.6 million metric tons, making Britain one of the world’s highest per capita importers of carbon dioxide emissions. If the UN’s targets were based on consumption emissions, the UK would have recorded a zero percent reduction to 2015.

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