Top five messages from the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report

Grangemouth Refinery, ScotlandThe Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has warned in its latest annual progress report that the UK is significantly behind its 2030 targets to reduce carbon emissions and, without additional policy and new strategies, we will fail to meet our legally binding commitments. Here are five highlights worth drawing out from the report:

1. Progress has been far too slow

The good news is that we have reduced carbon emissions by 42 per cent from 1990 levels, while GDP has grown by 60 per cent. The bad news is that recent progress over the past five years has been slow as the UK has depended almost entirely on the power and waste sectors to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Seventy five per cent of emissions reductions since 2012 have come from burning less coal leading, this year, to the UK’s first coal free day since the Industrial Revolution, but the promised coal phase-out by 2025 will only contribute a further ten per cent towards meeting the 2030 target. Significant reductions from other sectors are still necessary.

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2. Widening gap between commitments and goals

There has been a widening gap between existing commitments and goals. The CCC estimates a further requirement of 36 per cent reduction in emissions between 2016 and 2030 (including trading within the EU-ETS mechanism). Reductions from transport, for instance, are proposed to meet a third of this target. This would require a dramatic rise in electric cars and vans to 60 per cent of all new sales by 2030, rising from one per cent in 2016.

More significantly, the CCC identifies a gap of 100-170 MtCO2e between the emission trajectory under existing policies and the path needed to meet the fifth carbon budget targets for 2028-32. This gap, at its lower end, is still greater than the emissions from all the power plants in the UK in 2016. The CCC also estimates a gap in the fourth carbon budget (2023-27) of 50-100 MtCO2e.

The Paris Agreement, which the UK has ratified, sets higher ambition than existing UK commitments. The CCC does not recommend a change in targets in line with the agreement but it does highlight the significance of the increasing gap between business as usual and the required emissions reduction pathways.

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3. Brexit matters

More than half of the expected emissions reductions to 2030 are expected to come from EU-derived law. As Britain leaves the EU, there is a lack of clarity on how these laws will be retained or altered post Brexit and what strategies the UK will adopt to meet its climate targets. The CCC also warns that limited resources and capacity could potentially de-prioritise climate change in the light of other pressing demands. The Climate Change Act legally binds the UK to meeting its targets, but the means to achieve them are closely dependent on the outcomes of UK’s negotiation with the EU; for instance, over matters such as the internal energy market, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), Habitats Directive and other sectoral specific directives and regulations.

The CCC does not provide specific recommendations for the government on Brexit outcomes for energy and climate. But, for instance, in the case of the ETS, it states that the mechanism “has the potential to be a least-cost approach without creating competitiveness challenges for industry. The UK should either remain a part of the EU ETS or develop new approaches to ensure industry has incentives to become more energy efficient and to invest in low carbon technologies. Any new approaches outside of the EU ETS should not disadvantage UK competitiveness.”

4. Plans are needed right now

The CCC indicates how urgent the need for the government’s emissions reduction plan is. The new minister for climate, Claire Perry, has announced that the plan will be published in autumn, after almost a year’s delay. The CCC expects the plan to:

“cover each sector of the economy including plans to bring forward about 80-100 TWh more low carbon generation by 2030, accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles, provide a path for the uptake of low carbon heat alongside energy efficiency, re-start work on carbon capture and storage and address forestry, peat restoration and land management practices to allow the natural environment to take-up and store carbon and reduce emissions from agriculture. It should also clarify which combination of policy instruments, in which sectors, will be used to support the changes. This includes, for example, the use of carbon pricing, standards and regulations, research and development funding, subsidies, market design and taxation.”

This offers a clear yardstick to measure the effectiveness of the emissions reduction plan. The CCC also highlights the pressing need for the government to produce its national adaptation programme to address the severe impacts of climate change, such as floods, volatile food supplies and international supply chains, degrading marine environments and vulnerability to pests, diseases and invasive species. This programme is required to be published in the first half of 2018.

5. What needs to change?

The CCC proposes a host of policy packages to deliver the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. The scale of the challenge is evident if the targets for the buildings and transport sector are broken down. It estimates that a 1,300 percent increase in the annual sales of electric vehicles and a similar growth in domestic heat pumps would be required to meet 2030 targets. If hydrogen was used as the low carbon source of heat across UK’s networks, an area of four to six times the size of Leeds would have to be retrofitted by 2030. The CCC’s sense of urgency is, therefore, not misplaced given how deep emissions cuts need to be.

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The CCC identifies areas that either need stronger implementation of existing policies, new instruments or whole new strategies. The report pinpoints energy efficiency, low carbon heating, carbon capture and storage, industrial decarbonisation, agriculture and aviation as areas where existing policy is limited and not fit for purpose and where new strategies are necessary. It particularly laments the lack of progress in the support of mature renewables like onshore wind and solar, two of the cheapest sources of energy for the UK.

The report also emphasises the co-benefits of acting on climate change. Efforts to reduce emissions through energy efficiency has resulted in savings on household energy bills: in 2016, in real terms, energy bills were lower by about £10 per month compared to 2008 (when the Climate Change Act was passed). The low carbon economy already accounts for two to three per cent of the UK’s GDP and further efforts to tackle climate change will tap into a market worth trillions of pounds, while building infrastructure for the 21st century.

5 comments

  • The COP21 commitment to keep temperatures “well below” 2C and pursue efforts towards a 1.5C threshold has been ratified by the UK. Therefore the decision made by the CCC is irrational and perverse. The CCC’s position is weakened further by the emergence of the “postive feedbacks” which are amplifying global warming, accelerating climate change and rapidly increasing the loss of life. The Bank of England noted the implications of these feedbacks in its June report (Page 103) on the financial risks associated with climate change, warning the feedbacks could reduce carbon budgets and dramatically impact investments held in fossil fuel assets.

    In the light of the science surely the “top message” is the climate crisis is now an industrial crisis and nothing short of dynamic leadership will do.

  • Chaitanya Kumar

    Indeed Jon. But what would that dynamic leadership look like? and I am not certain piling on the message of rolling crises can get us far.

    • I often give talks on climate change and point out that when the USA was attacked in December 1941 it had to react in a dynamic manner to an existential threat. The car factories closed in January 1942. By the end of March the car factories reopened, making tanks, weapons and a total of 66,000 bomber aircraft.

      So there is no doubt that we can tackle the climate crisis but will we choose to do so. The public listen to comments like those made a few days ago by Prof Stephen Hawking and the majority recognise that climate change now poses an existential threat. I believe the majority is ready for dynamic action, for that to happen commentators and campaigners like me need to lead the call to action.

  • Apart from an initial duty to advise on the specific 2050 target of the Climate Change Act 2008, the CCC’s statutory duty is to report to Parliament annually on progress in meeting the statutory carbon budgets. It appears the CCC has fulfilled both of those duties.
    It has reported that progress towards meetings the budgets is too slow; and it has informed Parliament that the Paris Agreement sets higher ambition than existing UK commitments. Surely, then it is the responsibility of our elected members in Parliament to consider amending the Act to reflect the UK’s international responsibilities. Parliamentarians make decisions, not the CCC. Therefore, a claim that the CCC has acted irrationally and perversely makes no sense to me.

    • In reply to Linda’s comment it must be noted that the UK’s carbon budget does not accord with keeping temperatures below 2C, let alone the “well below” target agreed at COP21 – despite the UK government’s ratification of the commitment to “well below” and to pursue 1.5C. Worse still, this report from the CCC shows that it recommended to government that UK targets, post COP21, should not be strengthened: –

      https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/UK-climate-action-following-the-Paris-Agreement-Committee-on-Climate-Change-October-2016.pdf

      There is one thing the politicians, the scientists and the eco-camapigners all agree on and that is that climate change is already killing thousands of people and will very likely kill many millions more. If the pessimists like Prof Stephen Hawking are correct, climate change could kill billions. So it should come as no surprise to read that barristers with ‘Plan B Earth’ are in communication with The CCC and BEIS warning that a Judicial Review of government policy is very likely.

      Worse still, The CCC members should reflect long and hard about the implications of Grenfell, Hillsborough and The Contaminated Blood scandal and the fact that politicians always want someone to blame when mass loss of life ensues. We all know mass loss of life is already taking place; so the questions are, when the inquiry begins, who knew what and when, and who warned those responsible for taking decisions what they needed to do to stop the mass loss of life.

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