Scrutiny doesn't stop with the announcement of a real-time web gadget; this Government needs to try harder if it’s to prove that its commitment to 10:10 is anything more than a honeymoon headline.
Our guest writer is James Stafford, parliamentary assistant to Dr Gregg McClymont, Labour MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East; he is writing in a personal capacity
When, on the first full day of Coalition government, David Cameron and Chris Huhne announced their decision to sign up to the 10:10 campaign’s target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from central government, they were very clear that they welcomed scrutiny.
The prime minister told the assembled press corps:
“You’ll be driving this forward… we’re going to publish the energy use of government headquarters in real-time, so people can hold us to account for our performance.”
In the spirit of constructive criticism, then, let’s try and talk about what exactly 10:10 is and what the Coalition Government’s commitment entails. This sort of discussion has been notably absent from media reports of the issue, which loyally followed government press releases and failed to ask any substantive questions.
There are a number of issues around 10:10 that are not always fully understood. The first is the way in which we talk about carbon reduction. In the language of international treaties, baselines are frequently used. Current levels of carbon emissions from a given source are compared to those in a given ‘baseline’ year, and net reductions (or increases) in relation to that level are announced.
10:10 is a different sort of target. An individual or an organisation signing up to the campaign must commit to a 10 per cent year-on-year reduction in CO2 emissions, not a target against a baseline year some time in the distant past.
This is much more demanding. Why? Because a 10 per cent reduction in relation to a baseline a decade or more previously can be built up over a number of years. Emissions from a given country or organization might be 5 per cent below baseline one year, 8 per cent the next, and 10 per cent in a third. These cumulative reductions are nevertheless frequently reported as if the entire decline has occurred in a single year; much of the reduction can therefore be re-announced by the relevant authority at any one time.
The Coalition needs to make it clear that they really have signed up to the letter of the campaign. Mr Cameron said that his government was “following the example of 10:10”. Is this a slip of the tongue, or a carefully worded get-out clause?
According to the Sustainable Development Commission, central government has already succeeded in reducing CO2 emissions by 10 per cent against a 1999-2000 baseline under Labour. Shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband had a long-term strategy for reducing government emissions by one third against 1999-2000 before 2020, and had committed £20 million annually to measures specifically designed to reduce emissions from the central government estate.
These targets didn’t go far enough, but it’s far from clear the Coalition is improving matters. If they are merely attempting to associate continued reductions at a more-or-less unchanged rate to the previous government with the positive media coverage 10:10 attracts, then their commitment is breathtakingly cynical.
There are other issues that also need to be addressed.10:10 are crystal clear that offsetting – paying for low-carbon investment in the Third World or the protection of forests, instead of making reductions in emissions at home – does not count towards the 10:10 target. Offsetting is a fraught issue economically, environmentally, and morally: try this site for size if you want to get your head around the problems with the concept. The Coalition needs to set out clearly if they intend to use carbon offsets, and explain how this approach differs from 10:10’s preferred ways of reducing carbon.
Outsourcing activities and selling off buildings that consume energy and account for emissions doesn’t count either, since this merely transfers the emissions between legal entities, rather than actually eliminating them. The Coalition need to be as strident as the the Sustainable Development Commission’s assessment of 10:10 in setting this out.
The issue of delivery is also complex. When pressed on whether he intended to spend any money on meeting the target, Department of Energy and Climate Change minister Gregory Barker claimed that it could be reached at no additional cost. It’s easy to accept that, in the medium to long term, energy savings from improvements to government buildings will balance out initial outlay costs, but to achieve these sorts of reductions in a year, and according to 10:10’s strict criteria, the Government will have to invest considerably in improving its building stock and vehicle fleets.
According to the former Office of Government Commerce, half of central government buildings are in the bottom three categories for energy efficiency. Getting substantive reductions in energy use out of them in a single year will take a lot of building work. Confirming Labour’s spending pledge would be a start; but ministers will need to go beyond it if they are really taking this seriously. Needless to say, the auguries are not good. Both Coalition parties seem to have basic conceptual problems with the notion of spending money now to save it later, as the Budget demonstrates.
The Coalition have already backtracked on commitments made in Parliament last year. The most astonishing section of Mr Barker’s answer was his denial that, in opposition, the Coalition parties had voted for 10 per cen year-on-year reductions not just across central government, but across the entire public sector. Ministers might wish to remind themselves of the content of the motion moved by Simon Hughes and the lobby they walked into nine months ago, before labelling Labour members ‘misinformed’, as Mr Barker did of Gregg McClymont, who asked him about the vote last week.
A final, rather obvious point is that they need to get on with it. One month out of twelve has already passed, and other than Chris Huhne’s initial allusion to an ‘inter-departmental steering committee’ and Mr Barker’s poorly-briefed comments in DECC questions last week, no detail has been given on how exactly the target will be reached.
Scrutiny doesn’t stop with the announcement of a real-time web gadget; this Government needs to try harder if it’s to prove that its commitment to 10:10 is anything more than a honeymoon headline.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.