Cameron rides to the rescue
Two weeks ago we were tearing our hair out at Friends of the Earth, trying to work out how to make the vitally important, imminent decision on the level of the fourth carbon budget an issue of major political concern.
But after eight days which saw resignation calls, cabinet splits, leaked letters and the Prime Minister riding to the rescue, we can be proud of helping the issue explode into the public domain - and win a decision that, while not perfect, is certainly progress.
The story starts back in 2008, when the Climate Change Act was passed after a huge Friends of the Earth campaign. This ground-breaking law obliged politicians to set and meet a series of regular milestones for carbon emissions, rather than use the old trick of setting distant carbon targets for long after they leave power.
The Act required a series of five-year 'carbon budgets' to be set by Government. Just as a financial budget limits how much money you can spend, carbon budgets are a limit on the amount of greenhouse gas you can emit.
Labour set three of these budgets shortly after the new law was passed. This year, the Government had to set the next carbon budget, which will now happen every five years, to map out the UK's CO2-cutting path.
Budget for disaster
We heard from our sources that the budget would be decided in a crucial meeting on Monday 16 May. It was horrifying to learn the Coalition was likely to agree a plan leading to CO2 being cut slower than experts say is needed to avoid dangerous climate change.
It would mean Ministers were ignoring warnings about how climate change affects people, our natural environment and our economy. It would be an implicit rejection of the groundbreaking Stern Report all parties agreed with a few years ago, which showed dealing with climate change now would cost less than trying to prevent it later.
And it would leave Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne unable to do his job of implementing policies needed to avoid the real threat of climate change. The equivalent would be if a Schools Minister didn't just lose an argument about best teaching policy, but was told he or she could no longer educate some children at all.
Should he stay or should he go?
We were pretty sure Huhne didn't agree with the proposed budget - and it made his job impossible.
So, in the nicest way possible, we prepared a letter urging him to resign if the rest of Government forced him into this position. For good measure, we passed the letter to Guardian environment journalist George Monbiot, who supported our call. I can't remember Friends of the Earth calling on a Minister to resign since Jack Cunningham in 1997 (he should have, he didn't), so it was a big deal and bound to upset some Liberal Democrats. But given the importance of this decision, we were confident it was right thing to do.
A tense crowd gathered around my desk as I hit 'send' on the email to Huhne - relieved seconds later by the 'out of office' reply that bounced back. "Bloody hell, it wasn't supposed to work that quickly," said a colleague.
Green email bombardment for David Cameron
Meanwhile, we discussed with Greenpeace possible legal challenges to a carbon budget that would fail to stop climate change. We worked with many other organisations - from 38 Degrees to the RSPB and Christian Aid - to encourage supporters to lobby MPs and the Government. David Cameron ended up receiving over 30,000 emails on the issue.
A leaked letter in which Business Secretary Vince Cable argued against expert Committee on Climate Change (CCC) advice added a new twist. While his department had long been a bit of an environmental bogeyman, this still shocked many who hoped Liberal Democrats would be a big green influence in the Coalition.
With the Cable letter in the public domain, and calls for the Huhne's resignation, the story was being picked up by more and more media outlets. We'd been speaking to Ed Miliband for several weeks, and he then piled in too - writing to Cameron to urge he follow CCC advice and releasing the letter to the press.
Progressive businesses in the Aldersgate Group also got on board to say that budgets helped create certainty for investors, seriously weakening the Business Department's contention that carbon budgets were bad for UK plc.
After criticism of the Coalition for failing to live up to its 'greenest Government ever' pledge after a year in power, in our report by Jonathan Porritt last week, the carbon budget was now increasingly being seen as the acid test of whether Cameron could turn this around.
Democracy in action
Of course, agreeing a carbon budget at a time of financial problems and serious budget cuts was always going to be a challenge.
No one at Friends of the Earth ever thought the 2008 Climate Change Act would instantly solve climate change and we could stop working on the issue. But by setting a clear timetable to be backed up by expert advice, as well as requiring the whole process to be public, we believed there was a much better chance of governments doing the right thing.
Last week's wrangling over the carbon budget was the Climate Change Act we'd dreamed of in action - and working. Previously, this decision would have been behind closed doors in Whitehall, leading to a watered down commitment and many nods and winks to industry.
The Act has largely proved itself in this first major test. We've ended up with a solid target that will halve carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2025 and gives the UK world-leading intermediate targets.
Next steps for carbon cutting
There's concern about a proposed review in 2014 - probably designed to save face for Vince Cable - that some companies could see as a reason to delay, or even as two years to lobby against, action to tackle climate change. But the review is restricted by the Climate Change Act and will require the CCC's input again.
The package of measures promised to support energy intensive industries is more sensible. We're under no illusion that UK manufacturing could be a huge help in tackling climate change if it builds the renewable power and energy saving products of the future. We hope to work with industry - but that doesn't give them carte blanche to keep pumping out greenhouse gas and carbon-intensive kit, instead helping them become a crucial part of innovative solutions.
The Act now requires Government to set out how to meet these carbon budgets before the end of the year - and start cutting emissions soon. There are key measures before Parliament already -the Energy Bill and planning policy for example - that will need to be as tough as possible to get us on the right track.
Friends of the Earth can feel proud the Climate Change Act framework we helped set up has worked, and give a pat on the back to those politicians who used it to get the right result. In particular, that means Chris Huhne, Oliver Letwin and David Cameron, with an honourable mention for Ed Miliband for piling in at the end.
It's probably no coincidence that these politicians also played a key role in getting a Climate Change Act into law in the first place.
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