Climate Assembly UK final report ‘The Path to Net Zero’

On 10th September 2020, Climate Assembly UK, which was set up by multiple Select Committees in the House of Commons, published its final report: ‘The Path to Net Zero’.  The document includes the Assembly’s views on different ways for the UK to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the Government’s legally binding target.  The publication of this report comes just over two weeks before the Public Bill Committee in the Commons is due to resume scrutiny of the Government’s Environment Bill, on 29th September.  Before looking at ‘The Path to Net Zero’, it is worth briefly considering the Environment Bill.

The Environment Bill 2019-20

The Bill contains 133 clauses and 19 schedules and provides a new framework for environmental governance – which is needed because much environmental law in the UK is presently based on EU law.

The Bill uses this opportunity to look at some key areas of environmental policy such as waste management, quality of air and water and biodiversity, obviously with the net zero target in mind, but without a clear view of the public’s views, preferences and priorities.  Until now.

The two main changes in this Bill are:

  • A requirement that the Government sets out the impact of new primary legislation on environmental protection and reports this to Parliament;
  • A requirement for a two-yearly report on major changes to international legislation on environmental matters to be published by the Secretary of State.

Otherwise, the Bill appears to have little that is new and mainly ensures that environmental governance continues under UK law, rather than that of the EU.

According to the House of Commons Library, the reaction of environmental groups has been generally positive, but there are concerns that the Bill does not go far enough in relation to targets – it establishes the requirement for them, but does not actually set specific targets.  Such targets would generally come later, but environmental groups want these to be legally binding like the overall net zero target.  There are also concerns that the Office for Environmental Protection, a new body established by the Bill with functions including scrutiny and enforcement of policy, might not be sufficiently independent from the Government and might lack sufficient powers to enforce secondary legislation.

The Opposition have also raised some concerns that the Bill is not as strong as existing EU legislation and that the UK could fall behind the EU in achieving environmental standards.

‘The Path to Net Zero’

The Climate Assembly was a citizens assembly set up by six Select Committees of the House of Commons.  Composed of 108 members, a cross section of the Public, its job has been to provide insight into the measures the Public might prefer the Government to take in achieving its net zero target, whilst considering that most, if not all, such measures would have an impact on daily life.

The Assembly’s final report includes a set of recommendations in ten main areas.  These include food production, land usage and management; domestic energy use and removal of greenhouse gases.  The report is based on the outcomes of confidential ballots of the Assembly members.  It says that “Assembly members showed strong support for policies to change both farming, food production and land use, and retail and individuals’ behaviour.” (Chapter 6 p.259).  That is also good news for the Agriculture Bill which is in the final stages of passing into Law.

On land management, the Assembly is in favour of a ‘managed diversity’ of land use, including restoring woodlands, peatlands and gorselands.  The report also highlights the need to support farmers to make a transition towards a different way of managing the land.  The Assembly said that the implications of policy changes for smaller farms, the suitability of different land for different uses, and differences in impact between UK regions were all vital considerations.  The Assembly would like to see ‘managed diversity’ run alongside greater reliance on local produce and local food production, as well as a voluntary change in diet to reduce meat and dairy consumption supported by education and incentives.

At least two-thirds of the members ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that nine factors should be part of the policies through which the UK achieves net zero.  These include:

  • Emissions labelling for food and drink products;
  • Information and skills training for those who manage the land;
  • Low carbon farming regulations;
  • Paying farmers and other landowners to use their land to absorb and store carbon;
  • Amending the procedure for awarding government contracts to give preference to low carbon food producers and carbon storing products;
  • Changing planning rules so that food can be produced sustainably in a wider range of areas

The Assembly also expressed strong support for protecting and restoring nature, and the value of ‘co-benefits’ to tackling climate change, for example in local communities.   A number of themes that recurred throughout the discussions of the Assembly are also listed as the need for:

  • improved information and education for all on climate change;
  • fairness, including across sectors, geographies, incomes and health;
  • freedom and choice for individuals and local areas;
  • and strong leadership from government.

What now?

This report has been welcomed by the six Select Committees, the Chairs of which have written to the Prime Minister to encourage him to ensure the Government acts on the report’s recommendations.  In addition, they have written to the leaders of the Opposition Parties reminding them of the need for consensus across all Parties on climate change.

This document, then, is likely to influence amendments to the Environment Bill as MPs use the opportunity to raise key points.  Whether it results in significant changes to the Bill remains to be seen.  It is probably more likely to affect the secondary legislation that will follow, as well as impacting the setting of the targets that environment groups are so keen to see.  This is because it gives Government a strong indication of which targets might be popular and which controversial.

The timing of the publication of this report is also opportune as regards the annual UN climate conference (COP26), which will be hosted by the UK Government in Glasgow at the start of November.

The overriding message from Climate Assembly UK is that it expects the Government to achieve net zero on time, and in a way that is clear and accountable.  Whilst there is a good deal of detail in the 550-odd pages of the report, inevitably there is still much that is open to interpretation.  It remains to be seen to what degree the Government will utilise the Assembly’s findings to support future policy.  When the Government and environmental groups disagree in the future, who will claim ‘The Path to Net Zero’ as their own?  Environmental groups who see it as another means of holding the Government to account? Or the Government who see it as a mandate for their policies?

The path to net zero is going to be a 30-year journey.  As a citizens assembly, Climate Assembly UK took place over a defined period of a few months, resulting in the published report.  It therefore gives a valuable snapshot of current public opinion. So, having taken this step now, will the Select Committees repeat the exercise at key stages to assess progress and seek further public views?