The 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.
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.
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.
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.