Targets for climate change policy: a special case?

Authors: Prof. Steve Yearley and Dr. Eugénia Rodrigues

A recent report by the CCC (the Committee on Climate Change) made its low-key way to Parliament (‘The compatibility of UK onshore petroleum with meeting the UK’s carbon budgets’). In it a key message: shale gas exploitation, commonly known as ‘fracking’, if it is carried out on a significant scale, will be incompatible with the UK’s climate change targets. To be clear, this means for instance that both the UK carbon budgets, and the 2050 commitment to reducing emissions by at least 80% would be compromised. This will happen, the report states, unless three fundamental conditions are met: strictly limiting emissions in the phases of development, production and decommissioning of wells; keeping gas consumption within the limits defined by the budgets; and fitting emissions from shale gas production into the existing carbon budgets.

Setting aside all the other social and political challenges that fracking poses, this report and the conditions it sets for meeting climate change targets raises interesting questions about the nature, role and impact of targets in climate change policy. Here are a few: what is the value of targets as a policy tool, and – in particular – in framing and constructing climate policy in the UK, Europe, and internationally? What are the most useful mechanisms for monitoring performance against these targets? What are the most effective means for ensuring compliance with targets, and how is non-compliance to be detected?

These questions were the focus of an ESRC funded project on ‘The Politics of Monitoring’ (ES/K005170/1 and an associated JPI award “IPCC AR5 in Europe”) and addressed by a panel of experts, policymakers and members of NGOs at a meeting held late last year in conjunction with IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research). Our analysis below includes the views of that panel in arriving at fresh views on targets, climate change and policy making.

Understanding targets

For about two decades the world of UK public policy has been dominated by the discipline and language of targets. The setting of quantitative objectives in a wide range of areas (from education, to hospital waiting-lists, to immigration and to policing) has become a familiar part of attempts to make public services more responsive, more controllable and more focused on ‘delivery’. This approach was famously enshrined in the Public Service Agreements (PSAs) that were a leading feature of New Labour endeavours in the public sector and in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. Professional and academic commentators have drawn attention to the extent to which targets were ‘gamed’ – honoured in formal terms but subverted in practice.

An initial issue is the extent to which the use of targets in the climate area is linked to this policy approach. Other environmental policy arenas have a long and independent history of using numerical targets as a management/negotiating tool. For example, the measures to deal with acid rain and similar issues taken under the UN Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) have been specified in terms of percentage reductions for over thirty years. It appears likely that such natural scientific entities – and particularly entities that exist at supra-national scales – are simply susceptible to being governed through numerical targets. It is unclear how much new public management had an impact on these areas or whether these policy ambitions were, so to speak, fortuitously cast in a target-setting mode from the outset.

Emissions targets instil a degree of clarity in policy-setting. Providing targets do not change too frequently, and providing the main actors have confidence in the durability of the targets, there can be widespread ‘buy-in’ to targets for managerial and organisational reasons (as well as because people believe in the validity of the targets themselves).

This prompts a related question about how accurate or precise the measures and targets are. Because with CLRTAP and greenhouse gases (GHGs) we are dealing with technical and scientific entities, it is easy for policy-makers and the public to presume that targets are objective and open to being reliably measured. But the GHG figures are based on complicated accountancy procedures for estimating and tracking the amounts of carbon emitted. CO2 emissions are not measured so much as accounted for. And in the case of other GHG emissions, as with nitrous oxide and methane, it is harder to know whether the figures have the robust objectivity that one would like to ascribe to them; the same applies to measurements of land-use change and forestry impacts.

For management purposes, targets are supposed to be about disciplining performance and holding people accountable. But, as respondents in our study made clear, targets may also have a strong political or signalling logic (Boswell et al, 2015). The UK targets for CO2 and general greenhouse-gas emissions before the Climate Change Act were not particularly ambitious “stretch” targets. It seems to have been assumed that these targets would have been rather readily achieved; they might indeed have been achieved even without becoming targets of official policy at all. However, the targets did function to signal the UK’s commitment to this issue, and allowed it to take a lead role in international fora as a country that was manifestly ‘doing the right thing’ about climate change.

The specific language of budgets in climate change policy

For the UK, the Committee on Climate Change tracks the latest emissions data and identifies underlying progress towards targets set in the carbon budgets and more broadly. Measuring and monitoring of greenhouse-gas emissions is governed by international agreements, and the CCC’s work is based on these data. But the CCC’s role is broader than the collation and publicising of such data since its aim is to interpret this information for the UK context, to look forward and locate areas where targets could be missed, and to identify key actors (whether in policy or industry) who need to be involved in the attainment of future targets.

Although there are clearly still some uncertainties around specific emissions data (energy data are believed to be robust while those from agriculture and land use still need further research and development), the CCC focuses on trends. If data collection processes are consistent and the figures are heading in the right direction, one can feel confident about trends in performance even if the figures are not known with great accuracy.

Worldwide, the dominant framing of targets relating to climate change has clearly been centred on emissions targets. But, with the passing of the Climate Change Act and the growing role of the CCC in open discussion of carbon budgets, future budgets have emerged as a different kind of target. In the IPCC’s AR5 the idea of a global-level carbon budget (or ‘carbon space’) came to be highlighted by the IPCC for the first time. This re-framing of the issue (asking who should be able to use which slice of the carbon budget and when) was not particularly newsworthy in the UK because of its familiarity. But in Norway, for example, it became an important new expression of the policy issue: should the Norwegian government really be exporting its oil and gas and thus using any of the world’s carbon space at all? The effectiveness of the language of carbon budgets raises questions about the consequences of constructing targets in different registers.

 Compliance with targets

After the UNFCCC Paris Agreement at the close of 2015, climate policy is faced with a new approach to targets in the world of nationally devised targets (known as INDCs). In the run up to the Paris COP, the pressure was on governments to make commitments that were not embarrassingly meagre. Post-Paris, the challenge is to hold to the targets countries have set themselves and then join in international efforts to ‘ratchet down’ from those commitments. But there are still questions over how those commitments were arrived at and how accurate a guide to future emissions they can be expected to offer. Currently, the major concerns are over the adequacy of the INDCs (since between them they offer global emissions reductions that fall significantly short of the target believed to be linked to two-degrees warming) and over the questions of how compliance will be monitored and overseen.

Compliance is clearly pivotal, though in many areas the detection of non-compliance with regard to emissions, or through deforestation and land-use changes, or through building new power stations is relatively straightforward using observational and technical means. In many respects the upcoming key issues are to do with the political and policy responses to non-compliance. Countries may wish to invoke security concerns in relation to data about their energy sectors or emissions. And in the extreme the only sanctions available, aside from the court of international opinion, would be trade sanctions or the sanction of the UN Security Council. Though the Paris Agreement processes focused on a ‘ratchet’ relating to emissions, there was also a need for a ratcheting up of transparency over environmental data.

 From the above, one message can be retained when reading and making sense of the CCC report on shale gas and carbon budgets: the difficulties in meeting the three tests set for fracking by the CCC are formidable. But does this mean that the language of targets has ruled out shale gas exploitation? We would not go that far.