Taking meaningful action on climate change, needed after 13 wasted years


Extinction Rebellion supporters paralysed central London in the week leading up to Easter 2019. In 2006 climate change was as high on the political agenda. The topic is now likely to become highly salient again in the run up to the next election. Thirteen years ago the Labour government was spooked by the rise of the Green Party and worried  the Conservative opposition was making the running on climate change. That April opposition leader David Cameron hugged a husky in the Arctic.

I was then editing publications on housing for what was called “Gordon Brown’s think tank” – The Smith Institute. (As well as doing the day job, editing Estates Gazette.) The Institute’s director, Wilf (now Lord) Stephenson asked if I would both edit and contribute to a monograph on climate change.  Contributors would include (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) Gordon Brown. Government chief scientist, Sir David King and Environment Secretary, David Miliband.

Heavy stuff. But what did I know? Happily, my job was simply to interview a dozen or so high level civil servants and politicians and put into print their unattributed views. Two former ministers, an ex-Permanent Secretary, the then Mayor of London (yes, Ken) and senior advisors to the Chancellor were interviewed. What became clear was the need for meaningful action and not just hot air. It feels like mostly hot air since. No wonder Extinction Rebellion supporters are taking action.

The meaningful actions described are those proscribed by the brief and not what civil servants then called “the easy stuff.” Not that easy, frankly. Pretty radical  changes that have seen the ‘greening’ of development and the dramatic increase in the use of wind power. But for the purposes of my exercise, meaningful means changes to the apparatus of government to lever climate change to at least hold parallel importance to economic matters.

The lack of action on this front over the past 13 years lies primarily in the lack of leadership. My respondents were very clear in 2006: If the signals of intent coming from No 10 are weak, they will be ignored. A second depressing factor became clear during three seminars held at No 11 to discuss the findings of the monograph, at which all the main actors explained their thoughts to an audience of senior civil servants, those who quietly run the country.

I’d open proceedings with a few remarks about the need to retool government. The mandarins rolled their eyes at this crass journalist and his simplistic notions. In front of then Environment Secretary, David Miliband, I warned of marches in the street, if actions were not taken: Not from Eco-warriors, but from Daily Mail readers upset at soaring road taxes on gas guzzlers.  Miliband carpet-bombed me from 35,000 feet, in a speech high on vacuity and low on specifics.

Why have I disinterred the subject? To say I told you so?  What a clever man am I? Yes, of course. But also from genuine anger. To show that this high-level attempt by Gordon Brown to change the political weather failed. Why did it fail? Because the Prime Minister at the time only paid lip-service to the concept. The civil service therefore refused to take it seriously.

The price paid for the enmity between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair has been 13 wasted years, during which the machinery of government and the proceedings of Parliament could have been adapted to better cope with the slowly mounting frustrations of those who have genuine concerns. The planet is not going to be saved by changes in Whitehall. But politicians need to save themselves by making meaningful, if local, changes.

I’m as irritated as anybody by the way Extinction Rebellion protestors have paralysed central London this past week. But the protests have succeeded in pulling climate change back up the agenda, after more than a decade of drift. What will be interesting to see, once the Brexit smoke clears, is how the protest have shaped and formed the party political manifestos  – and if the actions each party proposes are truly meaningful.

The entire report lies here



My 2006 essay from the above monograph

Taking meaningful action 

Peter Bill

A survey of the views of Whitehall insiders, including ex-ministers, reveals that the civil service remains uncomfortable about its ability to deal with climate change. It is necessary to set up an authoritative organisation to co-ordinate policy – and perhaps another to ensure that the wishes of the first are put into effect. There needs also to be an annual debate in parliament, triggered by an external guardian of climate change that would set and then police targets.

Meaningful action, rather than well-meaning words: this is the key signal awaited by a government machine that, although not in perfect shape, is primed to enact climate change policies. This is the single strongest piece of advice from a group that includes former ministers from both main parties, a leading political figure and several senior civil servants and policy advisers. They were interviewed for this research between mid-July and mid-October 2006.

That said, during these three months a discernible shift in mood took place. In July the talk was of the government making its position much clearer. By October it was becoming apparent to interviewees that Labour was putting the pieces in place to do just that by next summer. By early November the seminal report by Sir Nicholas Stern made the government’s intentions perfectly clear.

Although the credibility gap has narrowed, scepticism that meaningful action will follow remains: resetting the machinery of government in a way that makes it clear that the ecology of the world now matters as much as the economy of Britain will narrow the remaining gap. That scepticism can best be illustrated by the following example. On 12 May 2006 Downing Street asked the Department for Communities and Local Government to assess the possibility of setting up an office for climate change – and report back by the end of June.

Yet an initiative with potential perhaps to become the internal driver for climate change policies was little known or understood. Even those aware of the climate change office proposal seemed unsure of its progress, sceptical of its power and hazy on a likely location. That was the feeling in July. Four months on, the view is that although serious intent has been shown, meaningful action on this and a host of other issues has yet to be publicly demonstrated.

So, what would constitute meaningful action? What changes to the way government works would convince the public and, as critically, the civil service that the current administration means what it says? To discover this, interviewees were asked what they thought was wrong with the way green issues were dealt with at local, national and international level. They were then asked to give suggestions on ways that the system of policy formulation, initiation and monitoring could be improved.


• Central government: Actions now, not words

• Whitehall: No upheaval, just a new central committee

• Local government: Devolve power as well as responsibility

• Parliament: Hold annual debate to air raised issues

• Public opinion:12% are “responsible ethicals”, beware the rest

• International opinion: Become green adviser to the globe

• The role of business: Encourage the good; compel the bad

• The role of the NGOs: Reinvention looks necessary

Central government

“You have to make it as politically sexy as putting a man on the moon.” – Bill Clinton in the New Yorker magazine (18 September 2006), on reducing carbon emissions

The “green shift” is well under way at the political level. The Conservatives have led the debate; Labour is now in the game of catching up and is likely to have done so by next summer. Even over the past three months the momentum has quickened. The Stern report has provided the intellectual springboard for action. The policy options are becoming clearer by the month. And as each month goes by, the political possibility of taking more radical steps becomes easier.

Taking it as read that the Whitehall machine will have a supercharger in the form of some sort of central committee on climate change (as set out in the next section, “Whitehall”), then what? Set targets, devolve implementation and monitor the results is the consensus. There are variants on how this can be achieved. There are genuine differences of opinion on monitoring (see later). But the feeling is clear that much good work has been quietly done over the past 10-15 years by most departments.

There are many policies and programmes and people in place. A white paper may well be necessary to widen and strengthen legislation. The Stern report will push climate change up the priority ladder: but will the subject ever jostle economic prosperity for first place? For the crux of the issue is of course how to deal with the tension between economic development and climate change.

Now economic development nearly always wins: the environment only wins when economic development is not compromised. Only an unequivocal lead from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will reverse this mindset: a lead that must consist of actions. This is the prerequisite for all that follows.

That lead might consist of the Prime Minister orchestrating the assembly of whatever central framework is put in place to direct climate change policy and the Chancellor announcing a shift towards green taxes in the budget, and both of them committing to make the UK carbon-reduction target the supervening issue should economic growth clash with reducing carbon emissions.

Then three departments should be singled out: those responsible for transport, energy and buildings. To make them take climate change seriously, the issue should have its own dedicated budget line and a single secretary of state responsible for that budget. The departments of transport, trade and industry (which carries responsibility for energy), and local government and communities should be openly set long-term carbon-reduction targets – and then told to get on and produce their own policies for implementation.

This will set a very clear “direction of flight” and make it possible for tough choices to be made more easily. Right now it remains easy for compromises to be made. Ministers remain good at identifying “not too painful” ideas – like upgrading the building regulations for new homes – but bad at forcing the vast majority in second-hand homes to do anything much at all. Then there is still the lingering view that the old 1980s agenda of productivity and 72 employment matter more.

The litmus test in transport will be the willingness to curb short-haul flights with high taxes and hypothecate the money into new rail links between north and south. The litmus test for the Department of Trade and Industry is to grasp the “nuclear nettle” and convince the public that atomic power stations are indispensable: or fully commit to renewable energy sources.

The litmus test for the Department for Communities and Local Government is to exhume, upgrade and implement legislation that will force owners of second-hand homes to improve their energy performance. The litmus test for the Treasury is to fully accept that cash raised from specific green taxes should be hypothecated to cut carbon emissions.

There are many suggestions on how these taxes could be raised. VAT on greenfield development, a “slot” tax on short-haul flights, and a big increase in road tax for gas guzzlers. Green taxes do now feel legitimate. But there needs to be a direct connection between taxes and the good they do.

As one former minister said, “We need hypothecation of green taxes to make them publicly acceptable. Just as we need to make SUVs socially unacceptable, we need to make green taxes socially acceptable.” But there may well be a need for an “eco-tax-shift”: that is, the reduction of an existing tax and its replacement with a green tax.

Whitehall:  No upheaval, just a new central committee

Unless the Prime Minister and the Chancellor signal their absolute seriousness to this issue by deeds, not words, then the civil service will continue to treat the topic as one where words, not deeds, are all that matter.” “You can always tell if any new initiative is serious by whom they get to run it – and where they put it.”

The Prime Minister has signalled serious intent. That means that the actions of ministers and officials to amend the way Whitehall operates will now be taken seriously as well. That much is clear: but what needs amending? There is little appetite for restructuring Whitehall. Not because all is well: although climate change is being treated with increased seriousness, there remain serious dislocations on green policy. But any redistribution of responsibilities would simply delay implementation of policy by 12-18 months.

The prevailing view is that this is time that we can ill afford to waste. Even now the civil service remains both uncomfortable and sceptical about its ability to deal with climate change, mainly because it is such a hard issue to conceptualise. Each department privately believes it is another department’s issue: and the Treasury is only just coming to terms with the idea that it has to treat climate change even half-seriously.

The external costs are hard to define. Today most decisions are made on the balance of competing interests. But tomorrow the argument might be: “If it’s good for the environment, isn’t that good enough?” How is that going to work? The weaknesses are well understood at a senior level. Therefore there is a general acceptance that to overcome the dislocation and the scepticism it is necessary to set up an authoritative, internally facing organisation to co-ordinate policy – and perhaps another to ensure that the wishes of the first are put into effect: hence perhaps the office for climate change idea.

A powerful Cabinet committee with a top-flight secretariat may do just as well, say some. But whatever the name or shape of the new body, it must mean – and be seen to mean – business. For making this organisation work effectively will be an enormous challenge and provoke great tensions within individual ministries. The group should be like a “mini-cabinet”, with promotion or demotion of its ministerial members dependent on getting it right.

It must mean business by having the first secretary of state as “managing director” and five or six other secretaries of state, including the Chancellor, as “directors”. It can be seen to mean business by having the very best civil servants seconded to run proceedings – with someone at its head who reports directly to the Prime Minister. Someone very good. As one former permanent secretary put it: “You can always tell if any new initiative is serious by whom they get to run it – and where they put it.”

Where the new group is sited also does matter. Placing it within any particular ministry will make it look captive of that ministry: except perhaps if it is put within the walls of the Treasury. Then the signal will be clear: this matters. It also matters that permanent secretaries do not have the power of veto of its decisions.

A secondary thought is that some sort of “green gestapo” is necessary: a group located within the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s office with the remit of challenging the domestic policies of ministers – and ensuring promises are kept. This group needs to report to a single Cabinet minister.

The internal test of this group will be if policy starts to emerge that is better, more imaginative and sharper-edged than before: especially in the field of transport. The unit needs to be small and defined. But, as one ex-minister warned, it will need to be staffed with people of experience and tact, armed with the credibility and ability to interact with ministries. “Young folk, however bright, just irritate.”

Local government: Devolve power as well as responsibility

 “Their potential role could give them a whole new lease of life.” “They need much more power, to charge for waste for instance.” “The civil service will hate it – they like to tell, not to negotiate.”

Local government appears fairly content with the legal powers it enjoys. These tend to be used as a “springboard by wilful individuals” to take action on recycling. But they are also easy to ignore by those uninterested. What the local authorities would really appreciate is a good deal more money-raising power: that would indeed raise the necessary level of interest.

What they want then is to be left alone to meet centrally set carbon-reduction and recycling targets in a way that suits each individual authority. “Don’t overprescribe” was the central message. Among the better authorities is a muted excitement that having these powers will see the renaissance of local government. Local authorities already have to take climate change into account when setting policies. But it is “more of a nudge than a duty”, said one local authority expert.

A review of local authority functions is being undertaken by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. A new performance framework that will set targets is being investigated. There is a strong will for the new framework that is due to be implemented in 2008 to place far more importance on recycling and carbon emissions than ever before. But there is also frustration in London and other metropolitan authorities that policy on climate change and waste disposal is so Balkanised, leaving the boroughs with too much control.

It is felt that so-called “city regions” should be given greater powers over larger areas. “Only then will you get scale, confidence and – most important – the quality of the people to get things going,” said one city politician. This will especially help the poorer boroughs, where recycling rates are typically low. Where there is ambivalence is over charging for waste.

Some see this as central to the revival of local authority power – provided they keep the money. Others worry about the national political fallout and quote the “chip in the bin” stories that sporadically appear as a precursor to tales of old ladies going to court for failing to pay. But the prevalent view is that the only way to reduce waste is to charge for disposal.

On carbon emissions, local authorities have no duty beyond reporting figures under the Home Energy Conservation Act. The progressive authorities feel they could play a more central role in controlling carbon emissions. They believe they could become the instruments of change when it comes to upgrading the energy levels of existing buildings. A parliamentary bill to do this, mentioned earlier, was quashed by the Treasury.

The intent was to force residents refurbishing their homes to upgrade energy-saving levels. This bill should be reintroduced, said one ex-minister: “I don’t think it would be quashed now.”

 Parliament and the watchdogs

Al Gore “The public will never forgive us if the government and opposition play party politics with this issue. We must have policies that are cross-party and can last from one government to the next – and that includes green taxes.”

“Politicians instinctively construct programmes around existing problems. That is looking backwards. On climate change we need to look forward a generation and build policies today around problems that won’t happen until tomorrow.” “

“We need a Bank of England style body that has perfectly comprehensible targets that are announced to the public.”

There was consensus that parliament needs to stage an annual climate change debate. There was no consensus on the shape or remit of any watchdog after the style of the Bank of England, the National Audit Office or the National Institute for Health & Clinical Excellence to monitor targets externally and provoke debate.

But an annual set-piece debate must take place, it was felt. This could be stimulated in one or two ways: first, perhaps, by having each responsible department report on its progress in meeting carbon-reduction targets; or, second, by a debate on the annual report of whatever kind of external watchdog is set up. At one extreme the Bank of England model was favoured.

This should not be a “finger wagging” model. It would help set the carbon-reduction targets, and, critically, be involved in their measurement – and, even more critically, in producing solutions to get the reduction targets back on track. In this way, a climate change commission perhaps could become the focus for scientific effort. It then might also be used as a platform for the government’s chief scientist to produce a progress report and also perhaps form the locus for the green lobby.

Others felt this was too extreme an option. Rather, they suggest, if an office for climate change were set up within government, it could have an outward-facing role bolted on – and so be used in a more limited way than the Bank of England model to trigger the annual debate. Either way, it is also important that the whole basis for measuring and recording carbon outputs is reviewed.

There was much scepticism about the methods and measurement of carbon emissions. “The answers can now be fiddled, because those who give the answers do the measuring,” said one former minister. “We have to make sure the public trusts the numbers, or we’ll never get away from arguing about them. The targets must also be easy to define and understand. Right now they are far too fuzzy.”

Parliament should also be the testing ground for building as much cross-party consensus as possible. The nuclear issue will always be divisive. It is hard to see any party agreeing on the level and scale of green taxes, despite the wishes of some. But there was a clear wish from the ex-ministers of both parties that some sort of parliamentary forum be established to produce consensus on some climate change propositions to prevent debate producing delay.

Public opinion 

12% are “responsible ethicals”, but beware the rest “

“OK, it’s fashionable in this benign economic climate to appear green – but I wonder how deeply held this sentiment is.”

“We have to remember that climate change is still a bit abstract to the man in the Dog &Duck.” “

“We need to frighten them, and then tax them – and make sure they know the taxes are for saving the planet.”

There has been a “green shift” in public opinion in the last 12 months: a mood coloured deeper green by a strange summer of blistering sun, monsoon downpours and Wagnerian electric storms. But there remains scepticism about how tolerant are the electorate – out- side the 12% of “concerned ethicals”, a group identified by SustainAbility, a management consultancy specialising in green issues.

How will the bulk of the population react when their lifestyle is really threatened? The concern is that society has become egocentric and shallow: everyone wants everyone else to save the planet. The question is how to connect this individualistic society with public policy: how to say that what we are doing is for a just cause; that your punishment is partly for the common good.

Yes, the middle classes, driven by conscience, are already modifying their behaviour. But is their attachment to saving the planet strong enough to hold out against stringent regulation and taxation? The headlines following the Stern report tell their own tale: the broadsheets in favour of saving the planet; the tabloids already raging against green taxes. There is also a further issue on green taxes on which debate is largely silent at present.

After 10 years of economic growth, a healthy economy is now taken as a given: but what if economic growth was to falter or the economy to start shrinking? This may happen, as Stern predicts, due to the effects of climate change. There are a number of unknowns that may slow the economy in the next 10-20 years: it is a fair bet that something will happen. Only then will the green fiscal policies be truly tested.

The point made by one ex-minister is that in this benign economic climate it is easy to appear green. But how deeply held is this sentiment? Will SUV owners remain quiescent paying £2,000 a year in road tax when Dad has lost his job and the other two cars have to be sold?

The point made is that any changes to the tax regime must be robust enough to survive a downturn: to be robust enough to do that, they must not be seen as “additional” taxes, but as part of a shift from the traditional taxing of income to the new paradigm of taxing consumption. The only exception to this rule is targeted taxes that are demonstrably hypothecated to pay for green policies.

Even then, the greatest challenge lies in convincing Labour’s traditional voters that the green taxes affecting them are necessary. As one interviewee said: “Climate change is still a bit abstract to the man in the Dog & Duck.” Start to raise taxes further on fuel or short-haul holiday flights without explaining why, and their resentment will be ferocious: especially if they see the rich still consuming – as they will.

“This will be even tougher than the poll tax,” said one adviser, suggesting that unless the majority of the public is wholly convinced that the green tax shift is fair, the minority will take to the streets – especially if the economy falters. A secondary but no less inflammatory issue of public concern is nuclear power.

Parliament is deeply divided on the issue. Each of the main parties is also as divided on this as they were on adopting the euro. The energy review made it perfectly clear that a new generation of nuclear power stations is necessary. The building programme is decades long. So all-party support, however tacit, is necessary before work can begin. One ex- minister advised that, provided all-party support can be gained, the government must “grasp the nettle early” and give the go-ahead.

That will cause a rumpus and alienate the deeper green end of the spectrum of public opinion. But the bigger issue remains that most of the concepts of climate change are concepts that most people still do not understand. They must be made comprehensible. This is a precondition for anything working. Put more brutally, “we need to frighten them, and then tax them – and make sure they know the taxes are for saving the planet,” as one former minister said.

To do just that, climate change policies must be, above all, “coherent, comprehensive and consistent – and constantly repeated”.

International opinion: Become green adviser to the globe

We have to put far more open pressure on the US.” “The Department for International Development should skew its budget towards aiding carbon reductions as there is no contradiction in saving the planet or saving people.” “Britain can become the green adviser to the rest of the world.

International policy is moving strongly in the right direction. Britain must continue to play a leading role in the shaping of opinion and the formulation of policy. Sceptics pointed out that the UK accounts for little more than 2% of global carbon emissions. They were out-voiced by pragmatists who said that unless Britain was fully involved we would have no sway in the resulting carbon-reduction regimes.

But either the US shifts towards Europe, or Europe must shift away from America. There must be more open pressure on the Bush administration to accept that carbon emissions are causing climate change. Co-opting Al Gore is a good idea. But there are indications that President Bush may recant a little in his State of the Union speech in January. If not, the British government must be prepared to move further away from America on this issue.

Why? Because the machinery of government will not get fully behind climate change initiatives unless this happens, nor will the EU or the UN take Britain seriously: this, as one ex-minister said, is the litmus test of the Prime Minster’s true intent. At home, the Department for International Development is seen as a likely candidate to assume much more responsibility for the promotion of UK experts in climate change. “DfID should go green” was the view.

In other words the aid budget should be skewed – at least somewhat – towards projects that reduce carbon emissions. “We have a great opportunity to become green consultants to the globe,” said a former cabinet minister. The objection that this would siphon money away from the poorest on earth was met with the not wholly convincing retort that “the depredation of climate affects the poorest people – look at Hurricane Katrina”.

The role of business:  Encourage the good; compel the bad

Some bigger firms now realise they need to be green and be seen to be green. It is now to their advantage.” “If you think the Treasury always puts the economy before the environment, what the hell chance do you think we have with business putting the planet before profits?” “The top 1,000 companies should be required to report on carbon emissions within the annual report and accounts – and not in some corporate social responsibility brochure.”

Most of the top 100 or so British companies have got it. Hundreds of smaller firms are 80 seeing the light. But the majority of UK companies have done very little. Only a stiff reporting regime and higher taxes will have any effect on this group. That sums up sentiment towards the business community.

What can be done? The government should provide sector-by-sector five-year carbon- reduction targets for the half-a-dozen industries that matter. These major industry groups should, through a nominated trade association, be required to measure and report on a nominated list of companies: the measuring to be done by accredited independent agencies, the nomination of companies by government. In addition to this, the top 1,000 industrial companies should be required to report on their carbon impact within their financial report and accounts.

Some of these initiatives have been suggested before. They have all been either watered down or abandoned after pressure from lobby groups. But the feeling is that sentiment has now changed and that such policies could now stand up in a different climate of opinion.

This new climate brings with it a host of opportunities for UK business. A raft of initiatives appears to be springing up quite independently. The new commission suggested by Sir Nicholas Stern will act as a catalyst. But how to encourage large-scale invention seemed to be the issue in July. Tax breaks for R&D and tax punishments for high-carbon products were the suggestion. But there was little appetite for expanding the role of the government agencies that are supposed to promote these initiatives (see next section).

Non-governmental organisations: Reinvention looks necessary.

“[——–] are about as much use as the Better Regulation task force.” “We’ve been trying to do something with [——–] for ages: I’m beginning to lose the will to live.” “Don’t talk to me about [——–]: pathetic.”

By far the most negative view on climate change issues came when discussing the role of non-governmental organisations with an environmental remit. The feeling is that most of them were set up in a time when climate change was about as important as road safety – or reducing government paperwork.

Comments on some of the smaller bodies set up in response to some particular need can be printed only after excising the name. Many are seen as bureaucratic, unresponsive, holding overlapping responsibilities – and, crucially, producing very little bang for their government bucks.

Negative comments were also made about what should be the most important NGO: the Sustainable Development Commission. The SDC’s anti-nuclear stance has of course made it enemies. But there was genuine concern that the SDC had become more of an “outside the tent” campaigning organisation rather than a serious source of advice and influence. As a result, the SDC is seen as having neither the power nor the influence that such a body should have, because of its “outsider” stance.

“We need to find a way of getting them into the tent,” said one ex-minister, who suggested a more powerful board and direct access to the Prime Minister. One political adviser said: “If meaningful changes are made, it would help the SDC to be taken more seriously.” There was also a general view that there should be a review of all government-funded agencies that have anything to do with climate change, energy and recycling issues.

This should be done not so much to shut them down, but rather to ensure that all the “mapped” issues are not being either ignored or duplicated. “There needs to be a look at the overall coherence and stimulation of NGOs,” said a senor adviser. “We need to examine the effectiveness of all these organisations that have grown like Topsy. The current situation is not helpful.”

Meaningful change was also called for at the environment agencies of England and Scotland: organisations that some felt could form the platform for the monitoring of carbon-emission targets. But “they are dreadful, badly run and not delivering the goods,” was the view of a former environment minister. He suggests the two are merged, climate change added to the remit, and the current waste and pollution remit rewritten to force the new agency to “contractorise” the auditing to relevant professional and trade associations in both countries. The current budget could then be spent on being “auditor of the auditors” on both climate change and pollution.