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Climate laws don't wait for UN

Richard Black | 22:47 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011

With UN climate negotiations in something of a quagmire, you might assume that fewer and fewer governments were passing national legislation on the issue.

According to a report just out from Globe International, the parliamentarians' alliance, you'd be mistaken.

Arnold Schwarzenegger winning climate activism award

US states such as California are moving ahead with legislation, the report notes

Compiled in association with the Grantham Institute, the London-based climate think-tank, the report doesn't simply list climate laws.

Instead it analyses legislation in 16 of the world's major economies (15 countries plus the EU), including established powers such as the UK and Russia and emerging players such as Mexico, South Africa and Brazil.

One of their top-line conclusions is that most of the laws have been passed within the last 18 months - giving the lie to any notion that glacial progress on a new international agreement has caused governments to think again.

You might ask "so how do you define a law as climate legislation?" given that emissions can in principle be altered by a huge number of things - building schools closer to where pupils live, taxes on meat, encouraging flexible working... just about anything, in fact, could have an impact.

So selection criteria could be an issue; nevertheless, reading the entries for different countries does give a strong sense of what's happening, and of the legislative processes in the various capitals.

And there are some interesting comparisons.

The analysts divide climate legislation into seven main areas: carbon pricing, energy efficiency, renewables, forestry, other land use issues, transport, and adaptation to climate impacts.

Perhaps reflecting concern over the security of future energy supplies, the only category in which all 16 economies have all established policies is efficiency.

The only three countries to score a tick in all seven categories are Asian - Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.

The UK has the highest number of laws, with 22. But as the report's authors note:

"...the number of laws relating to climate change is not a reliable indicator of the comprehensive nature of a given country’s legislative response. Some laws are integrative whilst others are very narrow in scope."

By comparison, a relatively recent entrant - South Korea - has fairly comprensive legislation stemming largely from its espousal of "green growth".

The US, as you'll know if you follow this stuff even in a cursory way, is a long way away from enacting comprehensive climate legislation, and apparently getting further away every month.

But the authors have some interesting observations:

"Although the passing of energy and climate change bills through Congress amount to a time‐consuming and complex process, US legislation on the issue tends to be rather comprehensive, precise, and with clear financial commitments and monitoring mechanisms.

"Additionally... the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources saw over 30 bill proposals relevant to tackling climate change introduced for its consideration in 2009‐2010.

"Finally, it is useful to note that although this project covers federal legislation only, there is a myriad of policies and legislation on climate change at the state level."

As to why Globe has released the report, its president Lord Deben (former UK Environment Secretary John Gummer) writes:

"It is my view that an effective post‐2012 climate change agreement will only be possible when countries are already taking the necessary domestic action, firmly rooted in their own national interest.

"In other words, an international agreement will only reflect the political realities in the major economies, not define them."

You might find an implicit criticism therein of the UN climate process, which is posited on the idea of a negotiated agreement in which countries first agree the scale of the problem and then assign themselves fair, equitable shares of pain incurred in its solution.

Solar tower


Lord Deben's analysis might not find favour with countries most vulnerable to climate impacts, nor with some activists.

But given the nature of the outcome from 2009's Copenhagen summit, it's hard to argue with his analysis of the political reality.

Still, in this picture, governments have to feel there's reason enough to enact this kind of legislation; what might persuade them?

Well, some types of legislation clearly come with side benefits - energy efficiency being the most obvious example, with forestry not far behind.

But cross-referencing the Globe study with the recent Pew Environment Group analysis of investment in renewables, it appears that there's something of a correlation between countries with active climate legislation and those that are attracting the cash for wind, solar and so on.

Perhaps that's not a surprise; but it is an economic reality.

One other aim of the Globe report is simply to help governments compare their relative situations and learn from each others' approaches.

Will it have any impact? We will only know by following the volume and the nature of climate legislation passed over the next few years.


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