VIEWPOINT: Tackling Climate Change – An Interview with Matthew Bell, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change

VIEWPOINT: Tackling Climate Change – An Interview with Matthew Bell, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change

Marc Hudson

The world will probably not be saved by the outcome of the Paris climate conference.  But nevertheless 2016 will be a busy year for the UK Committee on Climate Change.

The Committee is an independent body set up under the 2008 Climate Change Act. Its remit is to advise government and parliament on two principle issues. First, whether the UK is on track to hit the target of an at-least 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (relative to a 1990 baseline) by 2050.  The secondly the thorny subject of adaptation to the changes to our climate that can confidently be predicted to happen. The Committee makes recommendations about the five yearly carbon budgets that lead to the 2050 target, and produces annual progress reports on mitigation and biennial adaptation reports. And it has recently written to the Government setting out its views on recent controversial decisions in energy policy (see Policy Briefing, this issue). We spoke to Matthew Bell, CEO of the Committee, about policy prospects and pitfalls.

Bell feels that the main achievement – and is at pains not to claim it as one solely due to the work of the Committee – has been to maintain the wide consensus across the UK about the need to take climate action. He points also to the survival of the carbon budgets process, stating that it was not clear whether the process of five yearly budgets would work. Four such budgets, stretching out to 2027 have all been recommended by the Committee, accepted by the government and put into legislation.  This, alongside the policy and other decisions that flow from the budgets, Bell considers, gives a clear steer to both high level investment decisions and household behaviour. It also has a role in shaping consumption patterns, according to Bell. “The important thing about the budgets is they provide a very clear signal about the path that the country as a whole is on, well out into the future.” During 2016 the Government will legislate the fifth budget as far forward as 2032. This can have impact on decisions around infrastructure such as heat, electricity and transport networks.

On adaptation, he points to completed risk assessments, the Government’s adaptation program in response to those risks, and Committee’s assessment of the adequacy of that programme.  The Adaptation Sub-Committee has successfully raised issues relating to flood defences, the consequences of rising temperatures and the impacts on the natural environment from the combined effect of ongoing changes to the climate and other factors  – such as population and economic growth.

The Committee has also had a role in advising on everything from energy market reform and the incentives for low-carbon electricity generation to the incentives for low-carbon vehicles; from shale gas exploitation to the emissions from agriculture.

Drawing on global level assessments such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Committee does its own work on the science, economics, technological and behavioural issues around both mitigation and adaptation at the UK level and works directly with the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on their particular objectives.  The Committee has developed scenarios specific to the UK and to each of the nations for reducing emissions, as well as adapting to ongoing climate change.

Flying into headwinds
It is not of course plain sailing. If the job were easy the Committee would not be necessary. Challenges include the relatively long time horizons and the uncertainties that these entail around both which risks will emerge, and which actions will be (cost-)effective in meeting those risks. Clearly a 2050 target will include “adjustments along the way.”  Being able to provide reliable guidance, especially for adaptation, on risks that will emerge up to 60 years into the future in the context of infrastructure development is, obviously, a real challenge. Scaling up from ‘no-regrets’ and ‘low-regrets’ actions and maintaining flexibility for future surprises is a particular focus for the Committee at present.

The Committee, with both its mitigation and adaptation hats on, looks at land use, agriculture, forestry as well as changing consumption patterns. Bell feels that the Committee’s thinking on ‘macro level’ decisions can (eventually) filter down to ‘micro level’ initiatives such as travel behaviour, dietary choices or production processes used by industry.  One success Bell is keen to point to is the roughly 65% reduction in emissions from waste over the last decade, which has come from reductions of waste to landfill, more food-waste recycling, and improved production techniques.

On the tricky question of (growing) demand for aviation and the international trade benefits it brings, versus the carbon budget-blowing emissions growth, Bell is more sanguine. He points out that the UK’s 2050 reduction target includes aviation emissions, and in the Committee’s carbon budgets these emissions are monitored.  However, there are both national and international players in this arena. The Committee produced a report in 2009 looking at the contribution of aviation to the UK’s emissions, and the cost-effective level that aviation might reach in 2050. The report concluded that aviation’s 2050 emissions should be at 2005 levels, which would allow for significant demand growth thanks to technological improvements – a view hotly contested (see for example Bows et al. 2012).   If aviation misses these targets, some other part of industry or society will have to increase its cuts (as is happening in Germany with the coal industry).

In autumn 2016 there will be an emissions-focused congress of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, aimed at deciding how to most efficiently reduce the emissions impacts of aviation. Leading up to that, the Committee will “probably have more to say, and certainly following on from that there will be an international framework.”  The British government will then have a decision to make on the appropriate set of actions to take, and the Committee will “doubtless have a role in that.”

Greening the UK electricity grid
The Committee has just published a report on power sector scenarios out to 2030, in order to understand what the different technological options are. The scenarios consider a range of options, with the Committee agnostic on technologies. Bell feels the decisions should be left to the market and competitive mechanisms that have been put in place but with clear price signals from the cost of carbon, so that gas and coal are not being artificially subsidised, and from the system costs of intermittent generation (such as wind and solar). Scenarios include a range of possible future paths for the power sector, including options such as ‘no carbon capture and storage [CCS]’, ‘no nuclear’ and ‘less wind’ options to see if 2030 targets can be made in those contexts. For Bell “it is important that we develop [a] portfolio of technologies, which definitely includes CCS, to a certain level such that it can be competing credibly, and we can see which ones emerge as the most cost effective… For example, there needs to be some operational projects before we can understand whether CCS can deliver.” Drax, the largest coal-fired power station in the UK recently pulled out of a consortium bidding for public funds to build a CCS project in the North Sea.

On the rebound
Increased efficiency notorious does not automatically lead to a decrease in overall consumption (see Focus article in this issue).“Rebound effects” can actually lead to increased consumption. Bell admits it’s a serious question, and William Jevons’ 1865 book “The Coal Question” which first pointed to the issue, sits on Bell’s bookshelves.  Thinking through the potential behavioural implications of new technologies, and the technology mix, is crucial for forecasting emissions. Bell points to the classic example, that if houses are better insulated and have more efficient heating systems, some of those gains will be lost by people (understandably) choosing to have a warmer house. In this situation, making sure they can get that warmth through renewable energy becomes important.

Meeting Carbon Budgets
A cynic might wonder if anyone will lose their job or go to jail should the carbon budgets not be met.  Bell points out that the Committee, among many other actors, is working hard to ensure that the budgets are met.  Legal action is a last resort, and one to be avoided.  He does point to a recent Supreme Court decisions on air quality that if actions are being taken that are contrary to legal obligations, there are ways of enforcing those obligations.

Carbon budgets are not the only lever at the Committee’s disposal in influencing consumption and production. The Committee’s role, says Bell, is to set out the ends – mitigation and adaptation – and to monitor the means and whether they meet the requirements set out in the Climate Change Act:  cost-effective, and balance a range of factors such as fuel poverty, fuel affordability, competitiveness, fiscal position of the government and technological change. The means of achieving these, however, remain in the hands of government, local and national. The Committee’s role is to monitor and to engage to see if the means chosen are in line with the overarching targets.

Bell emphasises we are in an important period for reducing emissions and adaptation to the inevitable changes to come.  The fifth carbon budget needs to be legislated before June 2016 and the government must table the legislation to kick-off the next cycle in the development of the UK’s adaptation framework before January 2017.

“Between now and end of 2016 an awful lot of important decisions will be made which will affect how we as the UK deal with climate change for decades to come.”


Matthew Bell is Chief Executive Officer of the Committee on Climate Change. He was formerly a Director of Frontier Economics where he ran the Public Policy Practice (1999-2014), and has previously worked as an adviser with the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. Marc Hudson is a PhD candidate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research examines the responses – technical, political, economic, social – made by coal industry companies in Australia and the United States in response to climate change over the last thirty years. He has written articles for the “The Conversation”.