By Geoffrey Lyons

10 Oct 2018

Lord Deben is as intrepid and combative an advocate for the environment as anyone concerned about climate change could want. Better known as John Gummer, the former environment minister and now chair of the Committee on Climate Change tells Geoffrey Lyons why the UK’s current climate trajectory is worrying, and how it will be affected by Trump and Brexit.

Photos: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

One could easily mistake John Gummer’s indignation for irritability if it weren’t immediately clear that he’s angry for all the right reasons. Gummer, Lord Deben since his 2010 ascension to the Lords, is formally the chair of the Committee on Climate Change, the independent body created by the 2008 Climate Change Act tasked with setting the UK’s carbon budgets and advising the government on how to meet them. Informally, he’s Britain’s self-appointed environmental custodian, who has taken it upon himself to publicly rap the knuckles of politicians and industry leaders when they get out of line.

This week, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a major report warning that global temperatures will rise 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, Deben's office phones were off the hook with requests for comment. "This is a clarion call for governments around the world to act," says Deben. "As the IPCC warns, keeping the rise in global temperatures to below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would require fundamental changes in society by 2050, and the window for change is narrowing rapidly."

This is Deben’s gentlest tone – usually he’s more pugnacious. In June, for example, he said with characteristic paternal severity that the homebuilding and car industries “should be ashamed” of their efforts to combat climate change. Homebuilders, he argued, weren’t properly insulating their homes and therefore were “cheating the people they sell to.”


That particular dig triggered a response from Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, who said Deben’s comments were “ill-judged and are not borne out by the facts”. When CSW meets Deben in his plush St. James’s Park offices, furnished with a grand piano and Chopin sheet music, Baseley’s counterattack, hitherto unanswered, comes up.

“They’re wrong!” Deben thunders. “It’s very simple. The truth is we should be building to Passivhaus levels,” he continues, referring to the German Passivhaus standard designed to lower a building’s ecological footprint by minimising the need for heating and cooling. “The house builders have always said that you can’t do this because otherwise the price will rise, which is actually economic nonsense.” 

As Deben builds momentum, he gives the impression that the fate of Britain’s climate falls exclusively on his shoulders – a duty that, real or not, he appears to relish. “One of the things [homebuilders] say is that houses are of a higher standard than they were 100 years ago,” he says, teeing up another attack. “Well I should hope so! Motor cars are too! But that doesn’t mean to say that you don’t say Volkswagen is a disgrace for having tried to fiddle the figures in order to pretend they’re better than they are.” 

Given a chance to retract this comparison between homebuilders and Volkswagen, the carmaker that programmed software to cheat emissions standards, Deben pulls back an inch. “They’re different because Volkswagen said they were doing something and organising themselves not to do it, whereas the homebuilders are not doing something which they could do,” he notes. The unmistakable implication is that both deserve large helpings of blame for failing the public.

Progress makes perfect 

Homebuilders and carmakers came into Deben’s crosshairs after his committee published a damning annual progress report in June. The report found that while the UK was on track to outperform its carbon emissions budgets up to 2022, the next two five-yearly budgets (2023 to 2027 and 2028 to 2032) were not on target. The press responded with alarm and Deben made the usual media rounds, telling The Guardian that society was “shoving” the problem of climate change onto its children, and that “no parent should do that in any circumstances.”

The report advised government, among other things, to stop “the chopping and changing of policy,” referring to programmes like Zero Carbon Homes and Carbon Capture and Storage, which were axed at short notice. Part of the problem, the report argues, is that inconsistent policymaking imposes uncertainty costs. But isn’t Brexit really the problem when it comes to uncertainty? 

“Oh yes, it’s certainly true that everyone is uncertain about everything. That’s what Brexit does,” he says with a laugh. “You have to realise that continuity is extremely important. The whole purpose of the Climate Change Act and the system in which it works is in fact to give people certainty.” 

"The main worry for many is that the UK’s environmental standards will weaken after leaving the EU, a concern that Deben shares. “Brexit does huge damage to our ability to deal with the environment,” he says. “None of us should kid ourselves. We’ve got to where we are because of our neighbours in Europe, so it is important that if we do leave the EU, we should do what the government promised, which is that on the day after we’ve left we’ll be in the same environmental position as the day before.” 

Deben says there are two main obstacles to achieving such solid footing. One is the structure of the Withdrawal Act, the legislation that transposes existing EU law into UK statute books. He says it’s “really serious” that many of the existing environmental standards have been placed in the act’s introductions rather than embedded into the body of the text where they would actually have weight. 

Then there’s the issue of accountability. Deben applauds recommendations by environment secretary Michael Gove to set up an independent environmental watchdog, but thinks the details of Gove’s proposition lack teeth. “The fact is that we need that kind of watchdog, but it needs to have the powers to hold the government to account,” he says. “Does anyone really think the government would be doing anything about air quality if it weren’t that you can be fined by the European Union?” 

Ready for takeoff 

The report’s publication probably would have made a bigger splash had it not been for what occurred three days prior. On 25 June, parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve a third runway at Heathrow Airport – a pivotal moment in the long fight over the airport’s expansion. Luckily for Deben and his committee, the vote didn’t completely overshadow the report since one of its recommendations calls on the aviation industry to cap its CO2 emissions at 2005’s pre-recession peak of 37.5m tonnes. 

One could be forgiven for wondering whether this is still a realistic ambition in light of the added runway. “It’s realistic but it does mean that it has certain restrictions,” Deben says. “We know that it’s realistic because the Airports Commission not only said that it could be done within the Climate Change Committee’s restrictions but that it had to be done within those restrictions.” 

What still seems to irk Deben is not so much the vote itself, on which he says he mustn’t have a view, but rather transport secretary Chris Grayling’s statement on the issue to the Commons three weeks prior, which had no mention of climate change. A week after Grayling’s statement, Deben penned an open letter expressing dismay that neither the government’s commitments under the Climate Change Act nor the Paris Agreement were acknowledged. “I had to write to him to remind him that [Heathrow expansion] is only possible within these terms,” Deben says. “He wrote back to suggest that that was a given.” Deben pauses as if to reassess the adequacy of this response: “Well, I’m just determined to ensure it’s not a given in word only.”

Arc de Trump 

While the Climate Change Act is relatively unknown, anyone who reads the news will have been made aware of the Paris Agreement, first when it was signed in 2016 and thereafter for being the object of relentless ridicule by US president Donald Trump. Trump, who made a campaign pledge to pull out of the pact, followed through with his promise in June 2017 by formally announcing the United States’ intention to withdraw. The global response was a mixture of repulsion and defiance, much of which originated from Trump’s own backyard. 

“What’s happening in the US is that a very high proportion of states and cities are already actually doing what Paris demands,” says Deben, referring to a subnational coalition called the US Climate Alliance, now including 16 states and Puerto Rico, created the day of Trump’s announcement with the aim of upholding the goals of the Paris Agreement. “It doesn’t matter what Trump says about Paris,” he adds. “Except that it’s annoying that he doesn’t understand it.” Annoying and, to Deben, a bit funny, since he says Trump’s intention to withdraw has handed power to China, who some believe is now the world’s environmental leader. “I don’t think he meant to do that,” he says with a laugh. 

When it comes to the different ways that climate change can be tackled, it’s clear that Deben believes in an all-of-the-above approach in which action is taken at every level from the individual up to global institutions. He thinks one of the emerging major players is big business, which is finding ways to grow while simultaneously cutting emissions. “Some of our biggest companies are showing us how it can be done,” he says. “In Britain, we’ve reduced our emissions by 40-odd percent but we’ve increased our production and our growth by over 70%. These figures show that we’ve disconnected growth from emissions.” 

Other environmental leaders are putting their faith in innovation to help solve the climate problem. Bill Gates, for example, has argued that there needs to be more than a cut in emissions to make substantial progress – there needs to be an “energy miracle”. Gates is investing heavily in game-changing innovations like lab-grown meat in the hope that it will quickly but drastically reduce emissions from livestock and the meat industry. While Deben sees promise in these efforts, he cautions against betting too heavily on them. “I believe that you should work with the possible and the probable,” he says. “If we have miracles as well then that’s very good, but you mustn’t rely on having miracles.”

This talk of miracles brings out the religious side to Deben that had been waiting to be summoned. “We’re put on this earth to make things better and we’re expected to do everything we can do ourselves,” he says. “That’s part of the deal between man and creator.” Deben, the son of a Church of England priest and late convert to Catholicism, is largely motivated by the Christian idea of stewardship. “I believe we’re put here to look after the environment,” he says, adding that Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si is “the most effective and authoritative statement about the environment and climate change we’ve ever seen.” 

But Deben isn’t one to proselytise, as he’d much rather save his energy for pulling weeds and watering plants. “If I really want to unwind, I potter in the garden and grow vegetables,” he says in a rare moment of ease before launching into a warning about how climate change is affecting gardeners by pushing back the start of spring. For the man whose job is to ensure Britain stays on course in its climate commitments, there’s no time for small talk. 


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