Bryony has been working on climate change for the last decade - she wrote the first report in the UK calling for the introduction of 'carbon budgets', was the brains behind the Friends of the Earth 'Big Ask' campaign, and helped the UK Government launch its first public awareness campaign
CDKN Action Lab
Oxford, April, 2011
Transcript of YouTube below
“I started out in climate change, possibly like other people. My main passion after leaving university was environmental protection and biodiversity and habitats protection and species conservation.
I think it was around the mid-90s when I realised that all the work I had been doing to try and conserve species and habitats was about to be hit by this massive tidal wave of a problem which was global climate change. And, it was quite soon after that I tried to shift from the work I had been doing on legal protection of species and habitats to working on climate change, and I was fortunate enough to be employed by Friends of the Earth as their UK climate change campaigner. So that was my very first job that was specifically looking at climate change.
And after joining... I started to get very interested in the data...so I’m a little bit of a data geek I’m afraid. I like spread sheets and numbers. And I feel safe knowing the number tell you something and you can rely on them hopefully. So I looked at what was going on in the UK’s emissions history...of its record. And I realised that although we had been doing reasonably well in reducing our admissions. It had nothing to do with government policy. It was almost an accident, and it was largely down to the shift to gas. We discovered North Sea gas, we exploited it and built a lot of gas fired powered stations and those replaced pretty filthy old coal powered stations and we had a double benefit. So not only is gas a much cleaner fuel, but the stations themselves were newer and more efficient. So the government was very happy telling everyone, “We’ve got climate change licked, you know, were are doing very well". But actually it was an accident of economic policy. Nothing to do with the environment really.
And, so what then happened was in 1997 we had a Labour Government come into power. And their view of the world was slightly different to the preceding government and they actually brought in a moratorium on the building of gas fire powered stations, because they could see what was happening, which was essentially our coal base was being destroyed. Our miners were being put out of work and our power stations were shutting down. So they stopped the building of gas.
And pretty much things stood still for a while and what then happened was emissions started bouncing around a bit. So global commodity prices started shifting and you would see that if coal was particularly cheap, and gas was very expensive you would see these sudden spikes in our emissions when everyone switched back to coal. Those power stations that had been there since the 60’s were turned back on re-powered and started producing electricity again and this meant that really as a country we had no real control over our admissions.
We like to think we have this very sophisticated handle on the mitigation of climate change, but actually we were really at the mercy of global commodity prices. And, I felt that this was something that needed to be addressed if we were going to really seriously track down our emissions steadily over several decades we needed levers and tools which would enable us to control these forces...these uncontrollable economic impacts.
So, it was also slightly coloured by my background which I had been working on a campaign for new laws for biodiversity and I felt a legal solution for climate change was needed. The government policy at the time was to have policy documents. Every five years they would produce, a very nicely produced, very well written, very well meaning, but actually full of tiny, little policies. You know, a little bit of energy efficiency here, possibly a little bit of support for renewables over here, but no comprehensive view of: What are the big drivers of the economy? How do we get a handle on making these go in the right direction?
So we had two of these lovely looking climate change programmes, which did nothing really to drive emissions down and we at Friends of the Earth wrote a submission in the review before the third one to say, “Look guys are going to have to stop doing this and start a new approach, because this bottom up kind of tinkering with bits of policy is not delivering." And so we wrote a document which called for the introduction of carbon budgets, which is not a new idea, anyone who knows how the Kyoto Protocol works knows that, that sets the world’s carbon budgets. It says this is the amount we should be emitting as developed countries. And over this five year period you developed countries have to stay within that carbon budget - you can trade, but you know there’s a limit on how much you can emit.
So we thought take that idea and make it a national policy, so we will create a legal framework, with the UK Government is not just facing one five year budget created by the UN, but a succession of five year budgets leading out all the way to 2050. So that you have a line of emissions that’s known in advance, that is reducing over that period of time and everyone will...that will be a legally binding commitment. So that was Friends of the Earth’s suggestion.
And as with anything, when you are an NGO and you’re on the outside lobbying...you kind of hope that you are going to have an impact, you’re never really very sure. So we sent this document off. We had some signs that it was being well received, Elliot Morley who was environment minister at the time invited us in, and you know, he is a lovely man and said, “This is the sort of thing we should be doing”, but we never really thought he’d have the power to do it.
But, then something changed, we then had a newly elected leader of the opposition. So David Cameron came in and wanted to reinvent the Conservative Party. And he decided to take an environmental theme. He changed the logo to a tree and he’d obviously listened to the focus groups. He’d realised that the environment was actually an issue for the electorate. So he was lobbied by the Friends of the Earth and he said, “Yeah, I’ll deliver you a Climate Change Act. If you vote me in I’ll give you the bill you want that will bring in this legal framework.” And that was hugely important, that Friends of the Earth campaign that enabled that got the opposition to take up this policy was really important.
At the same time David Miliband had just been made secretary of state for the Department of Food and the Environment and Rural Affairs I think it was then, the bit of government that did climate change. And he was also a young very powerful, dynamic character and he wanted to make his mark and I think initially he was quite sceptical about needing legislation, but there was David Cameron saying he would deliver a bill. So very quickly it became Government policy that they would also deliver a bill.
So already you can see that this process for change was dependent on things that you could not have predicted. That you needed certain characters in certain positions to really take this agenda forward. And, the degree of luck really involved was really quite astounding. And, it did really come down to these personalities these big people who wanted to make a difference.
So by the time David Miliband joined DEFRA, I had left Friends of the Earth, having set up the campaign, I spent some time in a power company learning how things work there, which was very interesting and they had then seconded me into DEFRA. So when David Miliband arrived and said, “Right it looks like we are going to have to have a Climate Change Bill, who do we know in the department who can help us with this?
Then someone said, “Well, Byrony wrote the document that Friends of the Earth, that kicked this whole thing off. Why don’t we get her in and see if she can help?” So I got shifted off my...I was doing some work on public awareness and a campaign about educating about climate change and told, “Right, you’re going to be part of a team of civil servants. We want you to draft a bill.”
And I mean it was quite a challenge. We were a team of I think about eight of us working full time - tasked with preparing a draft bill, and not just a fairly large bill but also in a quite short period of time David Miliband was convinced he was going to be reshuffled off to another department. So he wanted action fast. So he said,”I want this bill in three months”. So the lawyers all said,”No, no, no... you can’t get a bill done in three months. It will take six or may be a year”. And we said, “Well, we’ve only got three months so let’s try it.
And that speed was another key factor, that looking back on it was really important, because one thing that Whitehall is very good at doing is producing huge amounts of documents, and papers, and concepts, and notes, but if you are moving fast often if you bombard people with huge amounts of information they will usually find a couple of things that they object to and then you have to have a process of negotiation on those one or two issues as opposed to the minute of every single clause, every single policy.
So we were fortunate in away that, because.. Let’s not pretend that the Government was united in wanting this. The Department of the Environment was very in favour, DFID was in favour, FCO was pretty much in favour, but certainly the Treasury thought this was a terrible idea and the Department of Business thought it was a terrible idea and largely because they felt the UK acting alone would be really detrimental to our competitiveness. And here we were proposing a self-imposed target that was going to last until 2050. And it would introduce costs and force businesses to move overseas...and the world was going to end, according to the Treasury. And we kept saying, “We don’t think that’s true. It’s all very moderate, very manageable and it’s important, because we have got to show leadership”, and it was.
So we ended up arguing with the Treasury more on the principle than on the detail. Because we were moving so fast that they had may be one or two policy people covering our brief, whereas we had a team of lawyers and us and all our special advisors and we were - basically, were able to outwit them a little bit by moving quickly so that was another element that led to it being successful.
And the draft bill come out with I think elements that were true to the Friends of the Earth concept. Friends of the Earth always wanted it to be more ambitious, or slightly different in its format, but it had the basic premise there which that was a legally binding cap, that would make the whole government responsible for delivering emissions reductions.
It had adaptation clauses in there. It had enabling powers that meant that in the future if the government wanted to introduce policies to constrain emissions they could do so easily.
And importantly it created an independent body called the Committee on Climate Change who would advise the government on how the budgets should be set and met over time. And those elements, those sort of key elements are what are now in the bill today.
And I think, where are we now? 2011. It was finally signed off by parliament in 2008. And has it made a difference? Well, I think the major difference it’s achieved is it’s made government take this issue more seriously. I don’t think it’s necessarily driving down emissions exactly the way we wanted it to, but every department now has a responsibility towards meeting the requirements of this bill.
There is an independent body - the Committee on Climate Change - who are able to talk to the media and create a sense of pressure on government to do the right thing. And we will know in the next few months, the fourth carbon budget is going to be set. Now the proposals from the committee are quite impressive they are quite tight, they are quite challenging and we are going to be seeing now how government is going to respond when that goes through parliament in terms of, will government stay true to its ideas of being a green government? And back a tight fourth carbon budget. So we will see what happens in the next few months. And actually, I should say my role since doing all this - I’ve just been made a baroness so... in the House of Lords and so my role having being involved in this, in quite a number of ways, my final role will be seeing how it goes through in the House of Lords and I’m hoping to be able to use my position to make sure it is as tight as it possibly can be."
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