The origins of the 2008 UK Climate Change Act

On 28 October 2008, at the bill’s third reading, 463 of 466 MPs (list of names here) voted to pass the UK Climate Change Act without really having any idea what they were voting for. Now that the implications of the vote are becoming clear it’s instructive to review the question of how these 463 men and women good and true were induced to do this. This post provides a brief chronology of events, omitting a number of subsidiary happenings for reasons of space but hitting, I hope, the high (or low) points.

The UK Climate Change Act was at bottom a product of the “green revolution” that gained momentum during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s difficult to say exactly who initiated the chain of events that led to it. As good a candidate as any, however, is Sir Crispin Tickell. Sir Crispin, a dedicated environmentalist, was British Ambassador to the United Nations between 1987 and 1990, and he is reported to have been the man who persuaded Margaret Thatcher to deliver her seminal speech on climate change to the UN in 1989. In the light of her later pronouncements it’s certainly difficult to see the Iron Lady coming up with this on her own:

The problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. Whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases. We have to look forward not backward and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.

A year later Thatcher set up the Hadley Centre to study these portentous issues in more detail, and the UK climate change bandwagon was off and running.

Then came the 1992 Rio Summit and the 1997 Kyoto Conference, at which the UK reaffirmed its commitment to saving the planet and committed to a small emissions reduction. Larger events were, however, taking shape in the background, chief among them the study initiated by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in August 1997, which “reviewed energy prospects for the 21st century and their environmental implications”. The Commission’s conclusions were published in its 22nd report, “Energy – the changing climate” on 16 June 2000:

As a contribution to global efforts to prevent climate change running out of control, the United Kingdom should plan for a reduction of 60% over the next 50 years in the amounts of carbon dioxide it produces by burning fossil fuels. This is one of the key conclusions of a major report published today by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The report – Energy – The Changing Climate – explores what that will mean for industry and ordinary households, and how government policies need to change. Speaking at Westminster this morning, the Chairman of the Royal Commission, Sir Tom Blundell, said: ‘Recklessly causing large-scale disruptions to climate by burning fossil fuels will affect all countries. It is the poorest that would suffer most. We cannot expect other nations to do their part in countering this threat – least of all if they are much less wealthy – unless we demonstrate we are really serious about it.’

And shortly after that came the Nottingham declaration, launched on 25 October, which was eventually adopted by no fewer than 300 councils:

Evidence continues to mount that climate change is occurring. Climate change will have far reaching effects on the UK’s economy, society and environment. We welcome the • Social, economic and environmental benefits which will come from combating climate change. • Recognition by many sectors, especially government and business, of the need for change. • Emissions targets agreed by central government in the programme for delivering change as set out in the Climate Change – UK Programme.

And what emissions targets did the central government agree to? In November 2000 the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions published “Climate Change – The UK Programme”, which endorsed the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 60% recommendation:

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP)’s report Energy – The Changing Climate, published in June 2000, reiterated the importance of preparing for the longer term. It highlighted the steep reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed if the world is to avoid large scale disruptions to its climate. It recommended that the Government should adopt a strategy which puts the UK on the path to a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The 60% reduction was of course just a target, not a legally-binding commitment. But within eight years it had become one, and the steep reduction had become even steeper, increasing from 60% to 80%. The first step on the path towards a binding commitment was taken on 24 May 2005, when an early day motion was presented to parliament by six MPs (Meacher (sponsor) Baker, Chaytor, Drew, Gummer & Llwyd):

That this House agrees with the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser that climate change is a threat to civilisation; welcomes the cross-party agreement in favour of major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and particularly in carbon dioxide emissions, by 2050 …

And who was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser with whom the House agreed? Sir David King, who once claimed that “Climate change is a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism”

Because of the interposition of the 2005 elections the early day motion never came to a vote, but there are nevertheless three noteworthy things about it:

1. It was supported by no fewer than 412 MPs – already an overwhelming majority.

2. It was drafted by Friends of the Earth, which is how the 60% cut recommended by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution ultimately became an 80% cut:

7 April 2005, We (Friends of the Earth) draft a Bill which says the Government has to cut the amounts of carbon dioxide being released by us by 3% year on year. This would mean an 80% cut by 2050.

3. It was drafted under the supervision of a young lady named Bryony Worthington, whose assistance in drafting the bill had been requested by David Miliband:

Google “Bryony Worthington YouTube” and you will see the video of a young climate activist, now known as Baroness Worthington, describing how she first conceived the idea of such a policy when she was campaigns director on climate change for Friends of the Earth. She describes how, when David Miliband became environment secretary, desperate not to be “out-greened” by the Tories, he called on her to head a small team in his ministry tasked with urgently drafting such a Bill.

“Desperate not to be out-greened by the Tories”. It was around this time that the Tories realized that going green gets votes, and so the rush to out-green Labour began. In April 2006 the Tories came out with their “vote blue go green” manifesto, the introduction to which could also have been drafted by Friends of the Earth:

At our Spring Forum in Manchester, I made it clear that Conservatives intend to lead a new green revolution in Britain. It’s an ambitious aspiration but we’re already making a start. We have to think globally and act locally …

Next came the study that put the lid on things – the Stern report of 30 October 2006:

Unabated climate change could cost the world at least 5% of GDP each year; if more dramatic predictions come to pass, the cost could be more than 20% of GDP. The cost of reducing emissions could be limited to around 1% of global GDP; people could be charged more for carbon-intensive goods. Each tonne of CO2 we emit causes damages worth at least $85, but emissions can be cut at a cost of less than $25 a tonne. Shifting the world onto a low-carbon path could eventually benefit the economy by $2.5 trillion a year.

In short, climate change threatened the world with financial disaster but the world could save $2.5 trillion a year by fighting it – an economic trade off no reasonable person could refuse. Neither could the MPs. In November 2006, shortly after the Stern report came out, the Independent canvassed all of them to obtain their views on climate change. Only the M – to – O responses are still accessible, but all 42 MPS on this list, who include George Osborne and the Milibands, stated or implied that climate change was a major threat and a number referenced the Stern report. (It’s also interesting to note how often the phrase “greatest challenge” crops up; almost as if the MPs had copied it from the same document. Maybe they did.)

And at about the same time David Cameron (who had also been proselytized by Bryony Worthington the year before) referenced not only Stern but even went so far as to pay tribute to Al Gore in a 4 Oct 2006 speech to the Conservative Party Conference:

We saw in our debate on Monday the scale of the threat from climate change. I know that we have within us the creativity, the innovation, the technological potential to achieve green growth – sustainable prosperity. The Stern Report will tell us that the tools of success are in our grasp. But it will also say that the price of inaction gets higher every day. So I will not pretend to you that it will be easy. That there will be no pain or sacrifice. If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

By the end of 2006 the die was obviously cast. All three major parties (including the Lib Dems) had decreed that climate change was an incipient disaster and that drastic emissions cuts were the only way of stopping it, and the party rank and file were behind them (412 MPs had supported the 2005 early day motion more than a year earlier). A Climate Change Act of some sort was already inevitable. All that was needed was to goad Parliament into activity, iron out the details and get one passed as quickly as possible.

All of which Friends of the Earth did very effectively with their “Big Ask” campaign, which included street demonstrations, marches, a concert (attended by David Miliband and David Cameron), mass lobbying of MPs – nearly 200,000 people contacted their MP in one way or another – and high-level wheeling and dealing. But arguably their greatest success was to have Bryony Worthington appointed lead author of the team which drafted the 2008 Climate Change Act. It is in fact probably not going too far to say that Friends of the Earth wrote it.

And on 28 October 2008, at the bill’s third reading, Ed Miliband paid them tribute:

I end by paying tribute not to those in the House, but to those outside it: those who saw the dangers of climate change and the actions that needed to be taken long before the politicians did. I pay tribute to the scientists who detected the problem, the campaigners who fought to bring it to public attention, the green movement that mobilised for change, and above all, the members of the public who wrote to us in record.

And the rest is, as they say, history.

So what went wrong? Well, nothing really. We’re just looking at the scientific/democratic process in action. Supposedly the best scientists in the land told the government that climate change was a threat that could be eliminated only by making drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and the government took them at their word and responded accordingly, although perhaps going a little overboard at times. And the rank and file MPs, having no better information to go on, went along. The collaboration between the government and Friends of the Earth was, shall we say, unusual, but the government was at liberty to solicit the opinion of whomever it liked, and in pushing their agenda on the government Friends of the Earth were doing no more than exercising their democratic privileges.

So let us pose the question another way. Who was to blame?

In part the government. The Climate Change Act passed almost unanimously even though none of the MPs who voted for it – including cabinet ministers – had any idea how greenhouse gas emissions were going to be cut 80% by 2050 or whether it was even possible to do so. (Cost was not a major issue because the Stern report had shown that cutting emissions would save money.) Also largely unaddressed was the question of why the UK, which was responsible for less than 2% of the world’s emissions, should be the only country in the world to commit to drastic and binding emissions reductions. Ed Miliband gave this answer at the bill’s third reading:

It will make us the first country in the world to enshrine in law binding climate change targets that are stretching and ambitious, as they need to be—80 per cent. by 2050. They provide a scale of ambition that will enable us to play our part, with authority, in seeking a global agreement in Copenhagen at the end of next year. As Friends of the Earth has said, “the world’s first climate change law will also be a world class climate change law”.

The UK may indeed have played its part with authority but it didn’t save the Copenhagen climate conference. And there’s Friends of the Earth again.

But the lion’s share of the blame has to be shouldered by three scientists – Tom Blundell (a biochemist), David King (a physical chemist) and Nicholas Stern (an economist). The doomsday scenarios of Blundell and King were, and for that matter still are, on the fringes of mainstream scientific opinion and weren’t, and still aren’t, supported by any of the IPCC’s assessment reports. Yet their pronouncements, particularly those of King, had a profound effect on government and public attitudes, as later did those of Stern, who used speculative economic models to convert speculative climate scenarios into frightening levels of economic damage (5% of current world GDP represents about $US 4 trillion/year and 20% about $US 16 trillion/year). Had objective scientists been minding the store at the time the 2008 Climate Change Act would have been more in tune with reality, or quite possibly never enacted into law at all.


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15 Responses to The origins of the 2008 UK Climate Change Act

  1. Gaznotprom says:

    ‘The road to tyranny is paved with good intension..’

    Great sum up Roger! Thank you!

  2. Jim Brough says:

    When the climate act was passed by parliament were the MP s made aware of the scientific evidence that earth had gone through many episodes of global warming and cooling in its history ? I doubt it.

    The geological evidence suggests that earth is on the peak of another global warming cycle before a descent into cooling and another ice age.
    Sea level rise after the last ice age started to plateau about 9,000 years ago and what we call civilisation developed .
    We are enjoined by proponents of CAGW to believe that our CO2 emissions will cause a runaway escalation of global temperature and doom for all.

    CO2 emissions might prolong the current present warm period to world advantage before the next descent into another ice age.

    Much has been made about C02 emissions and global warbling. We should remember that to make a solar cell we need high quality silicon dioxide, high quality charcoal and a lot of heat to accomplish the chemical reaction.. SiO2+ C =Si + CO2 to make the silicon for the cells.
    Where does the heat come from.

    • Alex says:

      The next “natural” descent into an ice age might be soon. Soon, as in perhaps 1000 years. Perhaps 5,000 years.

      Human induced climate change will happen a lot faster.

      • A C Osborn says:

        How does that work then, as there hasn’t been any Human induced climate change for 18 years?
        Of course there is plenty of Human induced change to the historical data though.

  3. Alex says:

    Baroness Worthington is at least presently working towards a meaningful solution.

    Some form of atonement? “I got you into this mess, here’s how to get out of it. (And have plentiful, cheap and clean energy whilst your at it)”

  4. Sorry for going slightly off-topic here, but…

    Euan and Roger do a great job at describing the madness of climate/energy policy, particulary in the EU. And yet, your articles usually miss one of the best skeptical arguments: the European Emissions Trading Scheme.

    Forget the argument about how much we’re going to warm, or what are going to be impacts of this warming, or whether we should do anything about it. Let’s accept that in fact CO2 emissions must be curtailed. Guess what: the EETS already does that for power generation, manufacturing and air transport (accounting for about 50% of emissions EU-wide). All utilities, manufacturers and airlines (except the small ones) have to purchase allowances for every ton of CO2 they emit. Kind of an obvious point, but one that’s usually forgotten by the people drawing up regulations.

    So the upper bound in emissions from these sectors is already set by the EETS. In fact, there is no reason one couldn’t include all fossil fuel consumption here – it would be as easy as expanding it to refiners and gas distributors.

    What happens when someone buys LED bulbs, or moves to a smaller home, or goes off-grid, or decides to reject capitalism and stops buying manufactured stuff? What happens is that his utility or manufacturer has less demand. Which means they generate less stuff (electricity, to give the easy example). Which means they purchase less offsets. Which means the price of the offsets goes down…

    …and someone else can afford to buy more. In other words, reduced power consumption in the UK means cheaper allowances for coal-burning utilities in Poland.

    So the EETS makes reductions by any particular country or industry pointless. To be more accurate, it makes stronger-than-average reductions pointless, because these will be offset by weaker-than-average reductions in other country or industry.

    If all industries or countries went with aggressive emission reductions, then allowance price would plummet, making the EETS as a whole irrelevant. (The EETS was in fact in such a situation a couple years ago, but it’s not clear if because of emission reductions or because of fraud and favoritism, i.e. over-allotment of free allowances to well-connected industries). While such a situation would in fact lead to greatly reduced emissions, the only logical thing to do at that point would be to abolish the EETS as pointless. (As you see, the bureaucrats are tripping over themselves to do that).

    Of course, most people working in the climate scam get this point: either you use regulations, or you use the EETS. It doesn’t make any sense to use both. But there is a lot of political capital invested in the EETS, and what would the parasites do all day if they weren’t enacting more regulations?


    PS: needless to say, the emissions reduction ‘strategy’ only needs a CO2 tax, levied on the fuel itself rather than on meat or car purchases or whatever. But such a simple plan would leave the climate consultants out of a job.

    • David Porter says:

      A worthwhile reminder, Alberto. If we must reduce carbon emissions, then we should do it cost effectively – price emissions and leave technology choice etc to the market. We had (in fact, still have) a scheme, but, the politicians and the technology lobbies undermined it by prescribing what technologies should be used.

    • gweberbv says:


      but this scheme is not going to reduce emission by 80%, unless all the participating countries/regions agree on that. I am sure that Poland would not agree.
      In particular after Cameron plans to cut the child benefit for Polish workers in UK 😉

  5. Doug Brodie says:

    Re. the parroting of “greatest threat” and “greatest challenge” by politicians, the closing statement by Gummer in the CCA debate sums it all up – “the biggest threat to mankind”. Note how he claims that the formation of the Climate Change Committee binds successor governments to the CCA objectives, which is surely not supportable legally:

    Mr. Gummer: The crucial aspect of the Bill is that it sets up a Committee that has a genuine effect on not only the Government but the Opposition. It will no longer be possible for anyone to give a short-term answer to climate change issues. We should all recognise that, if we dislike what the Government propose, we must have an alternative that will deliver the same end. We have never previously had that in British politics because we have not been in a situation that binds our successors. The technique of creating the independent committee is crucial to the good governance of Britain in circumstances in which the traditional mechanisms do not fit the time scale of climate change. The Bill is therefore crucial and utterly different. I believe that the vote tonight will show that our system is capable of adapting even to the biggest threat to mankind that we have faced, in a knowledgeable sense, at any time. I therefore believe that we should be proud to be present and voting.

    • I’ve often wondered what would happen if the UK doesn’t meet its 80% by 2050 target. Does the government get thrown in jail?

      • Alex says:

        Do you think the 2008 Parliament is worried about who gets thrown into jail in 2050?

        • Grant says:


          As thing stand no one making a decision in 2008 or even today is likely to care much about 35 years from now – although they may of course claim to be “thinking of the grandchildren”.

          In my opinion the costs of the consequences of what might be poor decisions should be considered.

          Rectification of Subsidy farms at “end of life” for example. Mining and Nuclear carry the costs but I have never heard of such costs being bandied around for wind and solar.

          Politicians, civil servants and “advisers” should also be subject to future claims for compensation.

          I would suggest something like a Copyright period – 50 years perhaps – during which they, or more likely their surviving family, would still be subject to compensation claims as class actions made against poor and willfully misleading decisions.

          The objective would not be to penalise (one would assume that only mega-rich despots would accumulate sufficient funds to make that a realistic proposition) but to encourage them to think seriously about the decision they can currently make, long term, without any concern for their careers or reputation.

          In other words to make them think about the role that the democratic society whcih appoints them would like them to undertake. Yes, I know, it’s a pipe dream – please don’t laugh to hard.

  6. Gaznotprom says:

    Lol AC

  7. Colin Boyd says:

    In the introduction you finger Crispin Tickell as a suspect progenitor of the Act. Crispin (unlike his son the “deep green” Ecologist editor Oliver) has, to his credit advocated for nuclear’s role in decarbonization. How can we explain the fact that the loonies at Friends of the Earth were given carte blanche to exert their anti-nuclear influence into a piece of legislation with such critical strategic implications when this was such a break from the pro-nuclear rationality of establishment figures like Tickell and King?

  8. Leo Smith says:

    I am moved to insert a quotation from an online (and rather dated) book about nuclear energy. This section is about nuclear waste treatment, and it perhaps explains the political process that guarantees the wrong decision…

    “…The cost of converting to cement would be about $20 million, and a $15 million trust fund could easily provide all the surveillance one might desire for as long as anyone would want to maintain it.

    “If this were done, what would the expected health consequences be? I have tried to do risk analyses by assigning probabilities, and I find it difficult to obtain a credible estimate higher than 0.01 eventual deaths. It would be very easy to support numbers hundreds or thousands of times smaller.

    “However, this management option is not being taken. Instead the DOE has decided to remove the waste from the tank, convert it to glass, and bury it deep underground in accordance with plans for future commercial high-level waste. This program will cost about $1 billion. Spending $1 billion to avert 0.01 deaths corresponds to $100 billion per life saved! This is going on at a time when the same government is turning down projects that would save a life for every $100,000 spent! That is our real waste problem.

    “One last item deserves mention here — the radiation exposure to workers in executing the plans described above. It turns out that exposure is greater in the billion-dollar plan that was adopted than in the plan for conversion to cement, by an amount that would cause 0.02 deaths (i.e., a 2% chance of a single death) among the workers. Since this is more than 0.01 deaths to the public from the conversion to cement, the billion-dollar plan is actually more dangerous.

    “I have met the government officials who chose the billion-dollar plan, and have discussed these questions with them. They are intelligent people trying to do their jobs well. But they don’t view saving lives as the relevant question. In their view, their jobs are to respond to public concern and political pressures. A few irrational zealots in the Buffalo area stirred up the public there with the cry “We want that dangerous waste out of our area.” Why should any local people oppose them? Their congressional representatives took that message to Washington — what would they have to gain by doing otherwise? The DOE officials responded to that pressure by asking for the billion-dollar program. It wasn’t hurting them; in fact, having a new billion-dollar program to administer is a feather in their caps. Congress was told that a billion dollars was needed to discharge the government’s responsibility in protecting the public from this dangerous waste — how could it fail to respond?

    “That is how a few people with little knowledge or understanding of the problem induced the United States Government to pour a billion dollars “down a rathole.” I watched every step of the process as it went off as smooth as glass. And the perpetrators of this mess have become local heroes to boot.”

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