Durable climate policies for turbulent times


By Andrew Jordan and Brendan Moore.
Andrew Jordan and Brendan Moore are respectively Associate Director and Senior Research Associate at the CAST – the ESRC Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation.


Four years after the signing of the Paris Agreement, climate change politics went into over drive in 2019. Born of a fresh desire to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and pushed hard by radical activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, political leaders began to adopt more and more net zero targets. Around 70 countries in the world have now pledged to reduce emissions to zero by mid-century. By the time Joe Biden assumes control of the White House, most of the world’s largest economies will have some kind of net zero target in place, representing well over 60% of global emissions.

In order to entrench decarbonisation, climate change activists are now turning their attention to the ideal interim targets – for 2030 and 2040. In late 2020, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson committed the UK to reduce its emissions by 68% by 2030, relative to 1990 levels. In 2021, the EU aims to adopt a brand-new climate law which will commit the bloc to achieve reductions of “at least 55%” by 2030, the aim being to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

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The problem is that these efforts, as important as they are, are literally just that: targets. Specific policies that do the heavy lifting of reducing emissions from industry, transport and homes are also urgently required to achieve them. Greta Thunberg has made this point with typical frankness. “Distant hypothetical targets are being set and big speeches are being given. Yet, when it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial.”

She may well have had in mind Boris Johnson’s ten-point plan on the road to net zero and the EU’s 2019 European Green Deal. Both contained myriad policy promises and targets but are essentially vision statements. The UK has since published a new energy white paper and in 2021 a plethora of new strategies are scheduled to appear covering trees, national infrastructure, industrial decarbonisation, heat and buildings. There is also the Treasury’s net zero review to look forward to plus swathes of new EU policy proposals.

Greta’s impatience with the pace of policy change is shared by many well-respected commentators on climate policy. The latest edition of UNEP’s annual emissions gap reports underlined the need for “strong near-term policies and action” to ensure the interim and net zero targets remain “feasible and credible”. In its 2019 net zero report, the UK Climate Change Committee sounded a similar warning that current UK policy was “insufficient for even the existing [reduction] targets”.

Current policy efforts are deficient on two grounds. First of all, there are many targets and vision statements, but not enough specific policies. Academic research reveals that although the global production of new climate laws grew rapidly in the period up to 2015, since then it has tailed off rather alarmingly. The Climate Change Committee recently returned to this yawning policy gap in its sixth carbon budget report, devoting one of two background reports to detailing the policies needed to drive decarbonisation throughout the 2020s. Running to over 200 pages, it documented the necessary policies in fine detail, concluding that the delivery of net zero “requires major policy strengthening across the economy”.

Drawing on the results of the UK Citizen’s Assembly, it helpfully outlined some important policy design principles. For example, the new policies should be systemically focused. Thus, the regulation phasing out petrol and diesel cars should be supported by an integrated transport strategy, which considers the most efficient way to transport people for the lowest environmental cost before capital spending decisions are made. Policies should also facilitate a decarbonisation transition, which involves people in their design and is suitably coordinated across the four nations. It also underlined the need for a systematic audit of all existing policies, to ensure they are consistent with net zero.

There is another hugely important design feature that does not receive as much recognition as we think it deserves: policy durability. By definition, a durable policy is one that endures and is influential over time. Although there is no widely accepted minimum time threshold, in the policy sciences it is usually assumed to be at least one electoral cycle and ideally two. Yet in relation to climate change, even two electoral cycles is a manifestly insufficient threshold. Unlike the constant churn that characterizes many areas of policy, climate policies are only genuinely durable when they nurture a society-wide expectation that total decarbonisation has not only commenced, but will persist through to the end of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the second important deficiency of climate policy making is that in the past, too little climate policy has been sufficiently durable. According to the journal Nature Climate Change, the ‘inconvenient truth’ is that a surprisingly large number of policies have been nowhere near durable or influential enough. In our own book, we document the more or less constant changes that have afflicted the EU’s policies on emissions trading, car emissions and biofuels since 1990. Some of these have sapped investor confidence and, on occasions, confused consumers. In the UK, a parliamentary committee documented ten key areas in which specific decarbonisation policies had been “delayed, cut back or undermined carbon reductions”.

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A natural response to these two deficiencies is to make lots of new policies that are as durable and ‘locked in’ as possible. This could be done by linking policies to legally binding targets that are pegged as far into the future as possible (2050? 2060?), and taking political control out of the hands of politicians and handing it over to independent agencies.

But in our view, this would be mistaken because policies must also be sufficiently flexible, otherwise they risk being overtaken by new scientific information and/or new technologies. Removing the opportunity to revise policies increases the risk of what is known as ‘policy drift’ i.e., when policies struggle to ‘keep up’ as the world changes around them. Policy scientists who have studied social policies have revealed that when policies ‘drift’ they become progressively less not more effective over time. Biofuel policies have arguably experienced a great deal of drift over the last decade or so.

If the ideal solution is policy that is both durable and flexible at the same time, how can this possibly be achieved in practice? In the past, the UK was locked into the EU’s approach to balancing durability with flexibility. Durability was facilitated by establishing long-term objectives (e.g. a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020) and then rolling together many policies into large packages that span a period of time (e.g. to 2020 or 2030). The task of formulating new policy proposals was passed to executive bodies such as the European Commission, supported by continual reporting by the independent European Environment Agency.

Policy flexibility was introduced into the EU’s frameworks via two routes. Specific policies included review clause which triggered a policy evaluation at a fixed point in time, eventually leading to a new round of policy formulation. In our book we refer to these as flexibility devices that encourage policy makers to regularly revisit and revise a policy’s design without completely disrupting it. Second, the policy packages were adjusted every time the EU set a fresh long-term policy objective (e.g. 40% by 2030). This process of revision will continue throughout 2021, as the European Commission reviews all the EU’s climate policies to ensure they support the EU’s new net zero target.

What is striking about the EU’s approach is how it recognises the fact that policy has many different working parts, ranging from long-term high-level objectives through to the selection and calibration of specific policy instruments. We refer to the EU’s overall approach as one of active durability – of combining different policy elements in such a way that the overall package (rather than any individual policy element) is sufficiently durable to absorb some modifications and still accomplish its desired goals. Active durability is in effect the EU’s strategy for ensuring that its policies are resilient in times of significant turbulence.

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Of course, the UK is no longer a member of the EU. Starting in 2021, it has an opportunity to develop its own approach to balancing policy flexibility with policy durability. The basic building blocs are already or will soon be in place: a binding net zero target; an interim target for 2030; and a system of carbon budget setting overseen by the Committee on Climate Change. The immediate challenge is to find a way to link these building blocks to the many new policies that were referenced in the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan.

The UK could borrow heavily from the EU’s strategy (of ‘active durability’) or it could invent its own way (to paraphrase the futurist Alvin Toffler) of ‘thinking about the big policy things while doing the small things, so that all the small things continue to go in the right direction’. Whichever route it selects, speed is of the essence. The 2020s are a critical decade for climate change policy.


The authors recently published the book Durable by Design? Policy Feedback in a Changing Climate

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