Eliot Wilson

It’s no surprise the SNP’s climate change law has failed

Former SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon takes part in a climate debate in 2019, when the law was signed (Getty images)

When Nicola Sturgeon unveiled the SNP’s climate change pledge in 2019, the First Minister boasted that Scotland had the ‘most stretching targets in the world’. The problem was that they were too stretching: five years on, the flagship goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 has been binned.

The decision to axe the climate target means that another part of Sturgeon’s legacy lies in tatters. This debacle also reveals something simple: writing something into law doesn’t mean it will happen.

Despite talking a good game, the Scottish government has consistently missed its climate targets – it failed to achieve eight of the last 12 annual targets – and the Climate Change Committee warned that reducing emissions by three quarters in time for 2030 was now unachievable, the necessary measures being ‘beyond what is credible’.

The decision to axe the climate target means that another part of Sturgeon’s legacy lies in tatters

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, did not mince his words: ‘That is a failure of the Scottish government to bring to the Scottish people, and the Scottish parliament, a climate change plan that is fit for purpose. This is the first time, anywhere in the UK, that we’ve said there’s a target that can’t be met.’

It is tempting to ascribe this simply to the holier-than-thou performative politics characteristic of the SNP. That has certainly played a part. The humiliation of having to abandon a high-profile law it introduced amid great fanfare in the Autumn of 2019 is a punishment in which its opponents will find a grim satisfaction. But the SNP is not the only party guilty of the idiocy of writing speculative targets into law.

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition was responsible for the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, which stipulated that official development assistance (ODA) must constitute 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, and created measures to verify independently how that money was spent.

It was a perfectly noble ambition: Britain’s record in assisting the world’s poorest is a strong one. It was one of the counterintuitive successes of David Cameron’s leadership that Andrew Mitchell, a former officer in the Royal Tank Regiment who had worked for Lazard, the world’s largest independent investment bank, took on the aid brief in 2005 and reframed much of the way we distribute aid as international development secretary from 2010 to 2012.

Passing a declaratory law, however, was a vain attempt to bind future governments to what was then felt an unshakeable commitment. It did not work. When economic conditions became tougher during the pandemic, the government cut its ODA spending from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent in February 2021, while pledging to return to the higher level when circumstances allowed. It is now rising again towards 0.6 per cent. But when economic reality bit, generous words printed on vellum and stored in the Parliamentary Archives put up little resistance.

This kind of wishful sloganeering has two dangers. The first is that it seeks to impose what may be transient political pressures on to future governments, which is not only impossible – it is a fundamental constitutional tenet that Parliament cannot bind its successor – but improper. It runs counter to all of our norms and conventions.

More dangerous still, politicians, who are easily satisfied with outward show over effective action, can often believe that saying something and doing something are the same thing. This was encapsulated in the embarrassing fifth-form episode of May 2019, when the House of Commons passed a resolution declaring ‘an environment and climate change emergency’. It was tabled by Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition, and agreed to without division.

What effect did it have? None. Indeed, immediately after the decision, Sue Hayman, then shadow environment secretary, raised a point of order to ask how progress on this commitment could be monitored. Speaker Bercow’s response was crisply withering: ‘The process of government, and the process of scrutiny of Government by Parliament, otherwise known as continuing debate.’

A colleague of mine in the House of Commons administration used to describe debate before a formal question had been put as ‘parliamentary clearing of the throat’. Enshrining a target in law may be even worse than that. Its virtue signalling is mildly annoying, but it runs the risk of becoming a distraction or satisfying politicians that they have achieved something, when all they have done is say what they would like to achieve. This kind of ineffectual display actively damages already-minimal public trust in politics and institutions. Don’t say what you want to do: to steal from a well-known shoewear brand, just do it.