Credit where credit’s due, the UK has shown strong leadership in tackling climate change. We were the first major economy to commit to phasing out coal fired power and we’ve set ambitious, legally binding carbon budgets up to 2032. We’ve also made strong progress towards meeting these carbon targets, having achieved our 2020 target five years early in 2015.
At first glance, then, it looks like UK action against climate change is going well. And yet environmental groups are clamouring for more ambition in the government’s long awaited Clean Growth Plan. Here are six reasons why:
1. A government policy gap means we will miss our 2025 carbon target
Despite recent commitments to the Paris Agreement and a coal phase out, the government has acknowledged that the UK isn’t on track to meet the target of reducing emissions by 51 per cent by 2025. The problem is that, as low carbon policies have expired or been axed by government, there’s been nothing to fill the gap, creating uncertainty for businesses and investors. The government’s own advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently warned of a major policy gap between the emissions reductions that the government’s remaining policies will achieve, and the legally binding targets set by parliament.
Part of the challenge the UK faces is that emissions reductions in the past five years have mostly been in the power sector, where they have halved since 2012. In contrast, emissions from heating buildings have reduced by less than ten per cent and transport emissions have grown slightly in the same period. The success in the power sector, driven by coal power phase out and an increase in renewables, shows that well directed government policy can rapidly reduce emissions. But, to meet our climate change obligations, we now need to find new ways to kick start reductions in other sectors, as well as maintaining the trajectory in the power sector.
2. Electric vehicles are not growing fast enough
The CCC recommends that electric vehicles should make up nine per cent of new cars and vans sold by 2020. Last year, electric vehicles had just a 1.4 per cent market share in the UK. Meeting the CCC’s recommendation would require a year on year growth rate of about 60 per cent, more than double the growth rate between 2015 and 2016. New policies are needed to shift the uptake of electric vehicles up a gear.
3. Energy efficiency progress has stalled
Between 2012 and 2013 there was an 89 per cent drop in the energy savings achieved by energy efficiency improvements installed under government schemes. And, since 2013, there has been no recovery. Most homes in the UK rely on natural gas for heating; developing the technology and infrastructure to decarbonise this system will take time. So it is vital in the meantime to reduce the amount of energy we use to heat our homes by improving energy efficiency. The UK has done this successfully in the past, and needs to do so again.
4. Renewables investment is heading towards a cliff edge
Although the power sector has seen the most dramatic emissions reductions, investment in renewables is set to drop by 95 per cent between 2017 and 2020. Despite falling costs, there is a shrinking pipeline of renewables projects up to 2020, and the government needs to make sure this decline is reversed.
5. There are significant opportunities for an ambitious Clean Growth Plan
We should remember that well designed low carbon policies can bring significant benefits to the UK. Onshore wind and large scale solar is already cheaper than fossil fuel generated power, and will continue to get cheaper throughout the 2020s, while fossil fuels will become more expensive. What is more, wind and solar power can be securely generated within the UK and do not need to rely on imports from other countries.
It is a no brainer that improving the energy efficiency of homes helps to reduce our energy bills by reducing the amount of energy we use, helping everyone, especially those in fuel poverty. A zero carbon home has energy bills of between £200 and £300 per year, compared to £1,129 for the average UK home and £780 for the average new home. The additional cost of building a new home to zero carbon standard would be paid off by energy bill savings in about six years, and some of the best zero carbon homes can already be built for less than the average cost of building a standard new home.
In transport, the rise of electric vehicles could reduce the amount of oil we use significantly and, therefore, the amount we need to import from abroad. With North Sea oil production expected to decline, our reliance on oil imports is currently set to increase dramatically in the coming decades. The government’s ban on new sales of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 is a step in the right direction, but more ambitious targets would have economic benefits. For example, if the UK government required all new cars and vans to be zero emission by 2030, we could reduce UK foreign oil imports by more than 50 per cent in 2035 compared to current projections.
6. Good policy works
Addressing policy gaps and kick starting emissions reductions in the heat and transport sectors will not be easy. But we should take heart from the success of power sector policies over the past five years. Yes, some government policies fail, many are imperfect, but good policy clearly works.
We need strong direction to reignite and kick start emissions reduction efforts across the economy. Every year action is delayed increases the reductions needed in each subsequent year to stay on track to meet the targets set, and each month of uncertainty stifles investment and delays the health and economic benefits of a low carbon economy. We know good policy works, so let’s see an ambitious Clean Growth Plan in action soon.