The Target Wreckers

Two ministries seem determined to scupper the government’s plans to combat global warming.


By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th March 2007.

First the good news: the “green arms race” David Cameron promised last year(1) has begun. Who would have imagined we’d get two green speeches from Gordon Brown in two days? Or that we would hear him say that “Chancellors of the Exchequer will now count the carbon as they currently count the pounds”?(2)  

The draft climate change bill is also better than expected. Its ultimate target – of a 60% cut in carbon emissions by 2050 – is too little, too late; but its means of getting there have improved. For the first time, the government proposes another legally binding target – for 2020. It will also appoint a committee of independent auditors. About time too: as the report commissioned by the Dispatches programme I presented showed last week, the government has been fudging its figures(3). On current trajectories, it will miss its targets by half. 

Now the less good news. The new target for 2020 is “26-32%”(4). That’s not a target; it’s a whole shooting range. What it means is that the legal target is really 26%, well below the level required to get the government on track towards its 2050 goal. As usual, shipping and international aviation are left out altogether. The excuse that they are not considered in international agreements wears ever thinner. What has that got to do with our domestic target? 

 The government still insists that it won’t set annual carbon budgets: instead they will cover five-year periods(5). This means that if one administration fails to meet its five-year target, it’s likely to be the next government that gets taken to court. Worse still is the proposal to permit the government to make its cuts by buying carbon credits from overseas(6). The global trade in hot air has already helped to vitiate the Kyoto Protocol. It will do the same for the climate change bill.

Now for the really bad news. Two government departments are actively undermining everything this bill seeks to achieve. Unsurprisingly, one of them is the Department for Transport. It’s not just that it is building 4,000km of new trunk roads(7) and telling the airports to produce “master plans” for a doubling of capacity(8). It has also sought to frustrate any effort – central to the climate change bill – to quantify the impact of its policies.

In May last year the transport minister, Stephen Ladyman, was asked for an estimate of how much carbon dioxide the government’s new trunk road schemes produce every year. The figures he gave were meaningless(9). Another minister was asked about the impact of local roads, and claimed it would be impossible to quantify, on the grounds of “disproportionate cost”(10). So Rebecca Lush of Transport 2000 wrote to the department, offering to carry out the work for £150. She was turned away. 

She also sent over a dozen emails to the Highways Agency asking for clarification of Ladyman’s figures. She received no useful reply. Then the minister promised parliament that the full figures would arrive in December(11). December came and went. In January Rebecca Lush sent in a freedom of information request. The Highways Agency provided an answer in February, but it contained accurate figures for only 13% of the schemes. She again asked the department for figures for local roads, and was told that her request was “manifestly unreasonable”. She appealed three more times without result, then on March 5th spoke about her frustrations on national television. The trunk road figures magically appeared a week later. But the transport department still refuses to release the data for local roads.

The identity of the other offending department is more surprising. In December Ruth Kelly, secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, announced that by 2016 every new home should be “zero-carbon”(12). Since then, she and her deputies have done their best to make sure it won’t happen.

Her planning statement on climate change, published the same day, banned local authorities from setting higher energy efficiency standards for homes than national building regulations require(13). As the Association for the Conservation of Energy points out, this means that they are not allowed to implement Kelly’s own code for sustainable homes, which was meant to blaze the trail for her 2016 target.

Then, on January 19th, Kelly’s deputy, Phil Woolas, talked out a Labour MP’s bill in the House of Commons, which would have permitted councils to set higher standards. On the same day, after pretending to support it, Kelly told the Labour whip to instruct MPs to talk out the Sustainable Communities Bill, which also seeks to reduce emissions. It survived; so Phil Woolas has now tabled a series of wrecking amendments.

It looks like a bad case of regulatory capture. Just as the Department for Transport seems to be working for the road builders it is meant to be regulating, the communities department appears to be working for the house builders. Together they threaten to bust the government’s brave new bill before it has even been launched.



1. David Cameron, 15th June 2006. Address to the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, Royal Geographical Society.

2. Gordon Brown, 12th March 2007. Speech to the Green Alliance.

3. Mark Maslin et al, 5th March 2007. UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions: are we on target? UCL Environment Institute.

4. HM Government, March 2007. Draft Climate Change Bill, para 5.3.

5. para 5.15.

6. para 5.28.

7. Department for Transport, July 2004. The Future of Transport White Paper.

8. Department for Transport, December 2003. The Future of Air Transport White Paper.

9. Table lodged in House of Commons Library in response to PQ 4888 05/06: Assessment of Carbon Dioxide Emissions.





12. Department for Communities and Local Government, December 2006. Code for Sustaianble Homes.


13. DCLG, 13th December 2006. Planning Policy Statement: Planning and Climate Change – Supplement to Planning Policy Statement 1.