During the Copenhagen conference, Gordon Brown said that - as part of a global deal - the Government would be willing to pledge to cut Britain's carbon dioxide emissions by 42% by 2020. At the time, we looked at what that pledge could mean if the economy grew at the rate expected by the Treasury and under normal expectations about the improvement in carbon intensity. Our research note showed that meeting the pledge in those circumstances could require a massive cut in expected GDP of around 30 per cent, which would mean a recession of unprecedented ferocity.
Following up on that research, we sent a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Energy and Climate Change asking how much they thought the pledge would cost. This is particularly important as it looks like a 42% pledge could happen even without a global deal. Incredibly, they refused to answer on the grounds that it could hurt the UK's negotiating position to reveal the expected cost before we signed up. As I told the Times, who reported the story:
“There is no way for a proper democratic debate to take place if DECC isn’t open about the costs it expects the country to have to bear to meet the proposed target.
“It might be that DECC’s projection of the cost is high and, with many people struggling in the recession and expecting big bills, the public will reject the new target. That would hardly be unreasonable given that major emitters, like the US and China, clearly aren’t coming close to following Europe’s lead in adopting expensive climate change policies.”
There are more details in our press release here.
Peter Lilley MP has taken up the case in Parliament, asking a series of questions trying to get to the bottom of things. The answers are extremely interesting. First, he asks what assessment the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate has made of the "effect on the UK" of cutting emissions 42% by 2020. In Ed Miliband's place, Minister of State Joan Ruddock answered:
"In July last year we published a Low Carbon Transition Plan and an accompanying analytical annex that set out how we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet our carbon budgets and the cost to the UK of doing so, consistent with reducing emissions by 34 per cent. by 2020. Were we to move to a higher target and set new carbon budgets consistent with that, then the Climate Change Act requires that we publish our proposals and policies for delivering those emissions reductions as soon as is practicable following the setting of new budgets in legislation."
The question wasn't about whether the Secretary of State has published "proposals and policies" to achieve a 42% pledge, it was whether he has an made an assessment of the cost of meeting such a pledge. To the extent that the Minister has answered the question, she has restated the position that they won't tell us what the pledge means until it has been made. Given that it will then be an international treaty, how are we supposed to have any kind of democratic debate on whether a 42% pledge is a good idea if they won't talk about the cost till it has been signed?
The second question asked whether Ed Miliband "discussed the effect of the UK committing to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 42 per cent. by 2020 with representatives of other governments at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen." The Minister responded:
"My right hon. Friend did not discuss the effect of the UK committing to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 42 per cent. with representatives of other Governments at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen."
Is she seriously saying that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change didn't even talk to representatives from other governments about Gordon Brown's big pledge at Copenhagen?
If so, that rather ends the debate over whether or not we should take radical, unilateral action to cut emissions in order to convince other countries to act. Our plans don't even come up in conversation!
And, it also means that DECC's statement that they couldn't answer our FOI request because it might undermine our negotiating position is even more complete nonsense than it initially seemed. The 42% pledge clearly isn't the subject of significant negotiations if it wasn't discussed with the representatives of other governments at Copenhagen.
The final question asks whether the 42% pledge has been discussed with the Foreign Minister. The Minister essentially refuses to answer, saying that:
"My right hon. Friend has regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary at which various topics are discussed."
Which is fair enough, the brothers probably do have a lot to discuss! But once again there is little evidence that answering our FOI request really would undermine Britain's negotiating position.
We will continue to fight for transparency and a democratic debate over climate change policy and hopefully MPs will continue to raise the matter after the election.