‘How will we cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050?’, ‘Will it destroy our economy?’ and ‘Why should the UK meet such stringent targets if the UK is responsible for less than 2% of global emissions?’
I have a set of 53 responses from 49 MPs to these questions from their constituents. In his column in the Sunday Telegraph in April 2012, Christopher Booker asked his readers to ask their MP those questions (paraphrased above) and to send him the replies. He reported on the results on 23 June and 21 July. I wrote via the Sunday Telegraph to ask if I could analyse the replies more quantitatively. Christopher Booker kindly agreed, and this is the result.
Details of the sample, demographics, etc. are given here.
Of the 49 MPs in the sample, 39 replied with a personal letter (33 Cons, 3 LD, 3 Lab), 9 sent only a response from a minister at the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) (4 Cons, 3 LD, 2 Lab), and one (Cons) sent a postcard acknowledgement only and no further response was received.
This was of course a small sample, fewer than 8 % of MPs (49 out of 650), and it was not a random sample. However, MPs generally respond to their constituents’ letters, so it was not a self-selected sample. The sample contained many more Conservative and more English MPs than a random sample would have (presumably reflecting the demographics of the Sunday Telegraph readership). The MPs knew of the source of the questions as most of the constituents mentioned Booker’s article in their letters. This was no academic survey with carefully worded neutral questions, as the constituents were clearly highly sceptical of man-made climate change and the need for emissions reductions. Their letters showed that they really wanted answers to the questions, which they phrased in various ways.
39 MPs sent substantive signed replies. However, 11 of these replies were the same letter (or close variants) which I will call the ‘form letter’. As MPs could (and did) edit this letter, I’ve taken it to reflect their own opinions, but it must have been supplied from some common source which may have been DECC.
The MPs were in general very supportive of government climate policy. Coding the 39 replies on a 5-point scale from ‘highly supportive’ to ‘highly critical’ of government policy, I judged that 21 were highly supportive, 12 moderately supportive, and 6 were neutral to highly critical. Thus 85% were highly or moderately supportive.
Answers to the questions
Many of Booker’s correspondents expressed disappointment that their MPs had not answered their questions. Indeed the MPs rarely answered the questions directly (as in ‘in answer to your question x, my answer is y’). But reading the MPs’ letters with the questions in mind, it is possible to discern opinions from most MPs on these issues.
1. How will we meet the Climate Change Act targets?
All 24 MPs who addressed this question mentioned technological solutions, such as development of renewable energy sources, ‘clean coal and gas’ and nuclear energy – though with few or no details as to how these might be achieved. Some mentioned improvements in building efficiency (the Green Deal) and one mentioned electric cars. Only two MPs mentioned behavioural change to reduce energy demand (‘This wasteful behaviour needs to change’ (leaving appliances on standby), and more generally ‘we are all consumers and we all have a part to play in reducing our emissions’).
2. Will this destroy our economy?
On this question, the sample was more evenly split. Twenty MPs (51 %) saw climate policy as an economic opportunity or indeed vital to the UK’s future prosperity. The ‘form letter’ included the phrase ‘decarbonisation does not mean deindustrialisation’ which has been used in speeches by various ministers since 2011. Many MPs noted the growing global market for environmental goods and services and the potential for UK jobs and industry. However, nine MPs (23 %) saw climate policy as a potential threat to the economy that would have significant costs, and seven were equivocal on the issue. Only three did not express a view.
3. Why should the UK seek to meet the emissions targets when the UK contributes less than 2% of global emissions?
The ‘form letter’ simply said ‘climate change is a global problem’ and most other replies were no more specific on the topic of climate change. Just three MPs said anything about the science or risks of climate change. Far more stressed the need for energy security and the risks of volatile fossil fuel prices. Of the 31 MPs who answered this question, 16 mentioned climate change (generally very briefly), 27 mentioned energy security, 17 noted the UK’s international obligations or the need to set an example internationally, and 23 mentioned economic opportunities, or the greater threat to the economy of doing nothing (74% mentioned two or more reasons).
Which sources did they quote or refer to?
29 of the 39 MPs mentioned at least one source. At least 10 different official documents were quoted by MPs: most commonly the Carbon Plan 2011 (frequently quoted in the ‘form letter’) and DECC’s website, but some also mentioned the Stern Review, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the Renewable Energy Roadmap, DEFRA’s Climate Change Risk Assessment and DECC’s Impact Assessment of the Climate Change Act 2008, among others. Some enclosed copies of their own articles or speeches or referred to their own websites.
Comparing MPs by type
Unfortunately there were too few Labour or Liberal Democrat MPs in the sample to compare responses by party.
It was possible to compare responses on the basis of whether the MP had ministerial responsibility: 17 (44 %) had some such responsibility (including ministers, whips, opposition front bench spokesmen, and parliamentary private secretaries) and 22 (56 %) were backbenchers (including 2 chairs of select committees). Note that these were ministers writing as constituency MPs, not representing their department (except in one case, where Greg Barker wrote both as the MP and as Minister for Climate Change). I will discuss the responses of the DECC ministers separately below.
Ministers (as defined above) were more supportive of government policy than backbenchers (chi-squared test, p = 0.012 when comparing ‘strongly supportive’ (response 1) with responses 2-5 pooled (moderately supportive to strongly negative)).
Ministers were also much more likely than backbenchers to view climate change policy as an economic opportunity rather than a threat or neutral (p = 0.006).
There was no significant difference between ministers and backbenchers as to the reasons they gave for meeting the targets. Thirty-one of the 39 MPs mentioned one or more reasons.
A note on the analysis: I used the chi-squared test to compare responses from ministers and backbenchers. This determines the probability that the distribution of responses is the same between the two groups. As the chi-squared test really requires larger sample sizes these results are only indicative.
Responses from the DECC Ministers: Ed Davey, Charles Hendry and Greg Barker
16 MPs referred their constituents’ letter to DECC and received a ministerial reply (dated 20 May to 30 July). In one case Greg Barker was the constituents’ MP and replied both as a minister and MP. In total there were 12 responses signed by Greg Barker, 4 by Ed Davey, and 1 by Charles Hendry. Fifteen were based on a single text which I will call the ‘DECC letter’. The two responses that did not share text with the others were Barker’s first reply and Hendry’s reply. The DECC letter did not appear immediately in its final form, but by 28 May Davey and Barker were both sending out the same letter with additional paragraphs added in a few cases.
How were the three questions answered in the DECC letter?
The DECC letter does not address the first question; it does not say ‘how’ the emissions targets will be met.
The letter concentrates on effects on the economy, citing the Carbon Plan as saying that ‘the impact of DECC’s low carbon policies on growth over the next decade or so is likely to be almost zero’ and mentions a Treasury analysis that estimates an average change in the annual GDP growth rate of –0.05% due to the policies. The DECC letter also says that the Coalition commitment is to increase the proportion of tax revenue from environmental taxes and not to increase tax burden overall. It mentions reductions in Corporation Tax and help for energy intensive industries.
In regard to why the UK should take action (question 3), the DECC letter refers to the Stern Review’s estimate that ‘a failure to tackle climate change globally could reduce the level of global GDP by 5-20% in the second half of the century’. The letter also says ‘climate change is a global issue that demands a global response – and all countries need to be part of the solution’. It mentions the success of the Durban talks in December 2011 in obtaining agreement from 120 countries to support the EU’s proposed ‘roadmap to a global legally binding deal’, saying ‘it is difficult to imagine how the EU could have made the case for such global action in the absence of credible action at home, including in the UK’.
The DECC letter from ministers is quite different from the ‘form letter’ from MPs (which may also have originated from DECC). The DECC letter concentrates on the effect on GDP growth and setting an international example. Unlike the ‘form letter’ it does not mention economic opportunities for the UK, nor does it refer to specific technologies or the Green Deal. No constituent received both of these letters, as none of the MPs who sent the ‘form letter’ sought a ministerial response.
Many of the correspondents said in their letters to Booker how dissatisfied they were with the MPs’ and DECC Ministers’ replies. I can see why; in many cases the replies did not engage with the constituents’ concerns and tended to ‘make points’ rather than addressing the constituents’ specific questions. However, as shown above, most of the MPs managed to answer at least some of the questions, if not in a direct or detailed way.
The MPs were generally well-informed about the government’s stance on climate change and referred to a range of sources (mainly from DECC or other government publications) in their answers. As far as I can see, they quoted their sources accurately, though uncritically and selectively.
There were a number of non-sequiturs, e.g. Ed Davey: ‘Wind is not an inefficient energy source – wind energy generated 3.5% of our electricity in the third quarter of 2011’ and selective quotations (David Hanson, quoting DECC’s impact assessment): ‘The benefits of action are estimated at £457 billion when the UK acts but the rest of the world does not’ … not making clear that the £457 billion represents benefits to the whole world rather than to the UK alone. This letter also compared costs as a percentage of GDP in 2050 with benefits in pounds (date and duration unspecified) making comparison impossible. Some appeared optimistic, e.g. Simon Reevel said ‘it is right that the UK should set an example but I agree with you that this should not be at a cost.’ And one (Mike Penning) seems to have misread his constituent’s opinion: ‘I agree with you that we should be looking to raise this ambition further [cutting EU emissions]’.
A large majority of MPs in this sample (85%) were in favour of the emissions targets, which most did not describe as being difficult or expensive to meet, though some mentioned economic costs to industry. There were references to the ‘challenge’ and a need for ‘major changes in how we use and generate electricity’ but also many references to ‘opportunity’, ‘an important part of the UK’s long-term prosperity’ and particularly ‘energy security’.
The MPs views on how the targets would be met were generally vague references to ‘renewables’, ‘clean coal and gas’, ‘innovative market-based solutions’, and advice to their constituents to consult the Carbon Plan. The main concerns expressed by MPs were over domestic fuel bills and planning consent for wind farms.
The three MPs who, from their letters, I judged to be most critical of government climate policy (Peter Lilley, Rory Stewart and Robert Syms) all emphasised the economic cost to industry (in Lilley’s case by enclosing a copy of a speech he made in 2008 opposing the Climate Change Act).
What do I think? I think that few of the MPs in this sample who support government emissions policy appreciate the scale of the challenge posed by the 2008 Climate Change Act targets or, if they do, are unwilling to spell it out to their constituents. None of the MPs in this sample suggested that in order to meet the emissions targets ‘we need to mobilize as a nation in a way we haven’t seen since 1945’ as Caroline Lucas did in January 2011.
In my opinion, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to just a fifth of what they were in 1990 is indeed a challenge on that scale, and the solutions suggested in these MPs’ and ministers’ letters go nowhere near addressing that challenge. The MPs did not even go as far as the Carbon Plan does in spelling out the implications of the targets.
DECC estimates that in 2010 wind power saved 6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in the UK. That was about 1 per cent of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in that year (588 million tonnes CO2-equivalent according to DECC’s GHG Inventory User Guide, page 8). Over 450 million tonnes CO2-equivalent need to be saved annually by 2050 to bring UK emissions to 20% of 1990 values (my calculations based on DECC’s inventory). That is seventy-five times what wind power contributes at the moment. The question remains: how will it be done?
Note: This post is not related to my work at the University of Oxford.