Evidence and policy for tackling climate change

21 February 2023


Evidence and policy for tackling climate change

Isobel Ollard, PhD student, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge

In January 2023, members of the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum met with Matthew Bell, a Director at Frontier Economics and former Chief Executive of the UK Climate Change Committee, to discuss the role of evidence in informing policy on climate change and sustainability.

The discussion focused on the challenges and role of evidence in translating big ideas into implementation; the need for cooperation at multiple levels, including between the public and private sectors, between national and sub-national institutions, and at the global scale; and the increasing need to move from largely supply-side climate policies to behaviour change.

Translating ‘big ideas’ into action

The discussion frequently turned to the challenge of moving from ‘big idea’ policies, such as the UK government’s ten point plan for a green industrial revolution and the British energy security strategy, to successful implementation and tangible results; a clear plan of action was seen as key to achieving this. It was proposed that a cascading structure of implementation is required, in which government provides directional oversight through broad targets, which should then be implemented at the individual sector level, often through private sector actors. Evidence-providing institutions like the UK Climate Change Committee are intermediaries in this hierarchy, needed to gather evidence to inform and guide the shaping of high-level targets into policies that can be enacted. This evidence might cover the timescales for a policy, the regulatory and financial tools needed, and which sectors should be targeted. In addition, other national and sub-national institutions and regulatory bodies often have a role in interpretation and implementation, in a more or less codified way, including through decisions over funding allocation. This so-called ‘small p’ policy is often crucial in moulding the way ‘big P’ governmental policy is implemented.

Public and private sector roles in policy implementation

In particular, the distinct roles of the state and private sector were emphasised. While a governmental lead is necessary to set the direction of the UK’s climate change response, some participants suggested implementation of specific measures may be more successful when delivered by the private sector. In sectors where the response to climate change is more advanced, such as the battery and electric vehicle industries, private sector implementation has been reached. Other slower-moving sectors like agriculture are still at the stage of heavy state involvement in delivery, but it was suggested by some that typically successful policies have been those where government has stepped back fully from implementation. There was a consensus that crucially, private sector delivery must be supported by state economic and regulatory tools, as was the case for the early stages of wind power development. Additionally, government must provide a policy landscape that is stable in at least the medium term, in order to provide the private sector with the security and confidence to invest and build up supply chains. In the recent past, this has often been lacking, with policies introduced and then withdrawn frequently and often erratically. From an evidentiary perspective, this requires the ability to present a case for the long-term efficacy of a project which in the initial stages may appear wasteful or inefficient to decision makers.

Fostering behaviour change

Historically, most effective policies addressing climate change have targeted supply-side emissions reductions, including the development of clean energy generation. These typically have small impacts on most citizens’ day-to-day lives. It was emphasised that in future, behaviour change on the part of individuals will increasingly be required. Previous policies in this area, such as those targeting energy efficiency and home insulation, have met with limited success. There are often significant financial barriers to individual action, but an equally great challenge is in adjusting deeply ingrained behaviours and assumptions on the part of both policy makers and the general public. The perceived intrusiveness of these types of policies can engender strong political reluctance, particularly in the present political climate. As a result, a higher burden of evidence is required, not only about the efficacy of the measures involved but also around how best to support their implementation through approaches like behavioural economics.

Global cooperation

The discussion also touched on the importance of global cooperation and the UK’s role in this. Climate change is a global problem requiring global action. The UK Climate Change Committee, as a statutory and independent body, has the potential to serve as a model for other countries setting up similar evidence-based advisory bodies. Participants discussed whether the UK might be willing to invest in helping other countries set up similar bodies. Another key opportunity identified for fostering global collaboration in climate policy was in developing a credible carbon offset market, which would require a broad global consensus around robust carbon accounting methodologies. It was suggested that this could involve leveraging respected UK institutions like the British Standards Institute, already experienced in developing policy with an international outlook.

What makes a successful evidence-informed policy?

Throughout the discussion, some key principles emerged for characterising successful climate policy that is effectively informed by evidence. Firstly, the evidence must be presented to policy makers in a way which clearly characterises the risks, benefits and trade-offs involved. This will generally require a clearly stated business case in which economic wins such as job creation can be articulated. It was also noted that while evidence around different facets of a policy can be presented, the decision on how these trade-offs should be balanced is ultimately a political one. Secondly, supporting policy through appropriate, effective regulatory and financial tools is crucial and evidence should also guide the selection of these tools. In implementation, the emphasis shifts from government to private sector involvement, supported by regulation and a stable policy landscape. While it was acknowledged that previous climate policies have met with mixed success, there was a sense of optimism that effective climate policy could be developed and implemented, although this was tempered by the urgency of the task at hand.

Image by Jan Huber from Unsplash