On Wednesday, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) proposed a level for the UK’s sixth legally binding ‘carbon budget’, its first set of advice aligned with net zero. The budget proposal, for a 78 per cent reduction by 2035, comes together with a detailed route map for how to get to net zero by 2050 and what needs to happen now. This is a critical milestone in the country’s carbon cutting journey, one that, as the CCC chief executive Chris Stark says, “will shape the UK emissions over the next 30 years”. So, what should be the main takeaways from the 1,000-odd pages of advice the CCC has given government? Here are three important messages we think shouldn’t be missed.
Emissions need to come down fast in the next 15 years
The CCC is clear about the best way to make the journey to a low carbon economy by 2050: the 2020s are the critical decade for action. Forget long term, abstract targets. The changes need to happen at scale within a matter of a few years. So, what will this look like in reality?
It means electric vehicles will need to be nearly half of new sales in 2025, and 97 per cent by 2030. Other recommendations include a 20-fold increase in the rate of loft and solid wall insulations by 2025. Low carbon heat technologies should represent 80 per cent of sales in 2030. Electronics, like smartphones and tablets, should last almost twice as long and waste per person should drop by more than a third. This short segment of the total list would mean more rapid delivery of benefits like cleaner air, warmer homes, lower living costs and longer lasting products, and this kind of transition would open up whole new areas of growth opportunity for businesses across the country, with the hundreds of thousands of jobs that go with that. The CCC’s new analysis shows that getting going now will pay big dividends sooner rather than later, with the impact on GDP and employment rising steeply over the next decade. There’s a lot to like about this vision, as we look for a way to recover from the Covid pandemic.
Taking early action also lays the foundations for the UK to go deeper and faster on emission reductions. The CCC’s recommended pathway shows how much faster we can go, compared to what was previously thought possible, effectively bringing forward the target for an 80 per cent reduction by 15 years. Some of its other scenarios would achieve net zero before 2050. Costs also keep falling, thanks to innovation and economies of scale, and lower running costs. Last year, the CCC had already highlighted that net zero could be achieved at the same cost as originally estimated for an 80 per cent reduction, at around one to two per cent of GDP. This estimate has now fallen even further, to 0.6 per cent of GDP by the early 2030s and around 0.5 per cent by 2050.
With all this in mind, it’s good news that the committee will be monitoring government progress over 2028-32 (the fifth carbon budget period) against a more ambition emissions reduction pathway – in line with the UK’s new 2030 emissions reduction commitment under the Paris climate agreement – rather than against the original budget, set under the earlier 80 per cent by 2050 target. Our Cutting Carbon Now project will also be tracking government promises on climate spending and emissions cuts over the coming year, ahead of the Glasgow climate summit.
Overlooked emissions now have to be in the picture
The UK should take responsibility for all the emissions it is responsible for. For this reason, the CCC says the sixth carbon budget should include the UK’s share of emissions from international aviation and shipping, so far excluded from the carbon budgets, and the 78 per cent target figure includes those sectors. Crucially, it makes clear that only by formally including these emissions in legislated targets will the UK be able to make effective long term policy and infrastructure investment decisions. The UK chose not to include international aviation and shipping in its recent Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) headline target under the Paris Agreement, in line with the UN rulebook. But the NDC should nevertheless include clear commitments to act on these overlooked emissions. Aside from the urgent need to put the country on track to net zero, this is also an opportune time to take stronger action to ensure these sectors emerge from the pandemic able to contribute to a low carbon future.
The CCC also puts the spotlight on consumption emissions. These are the emissions associated with the production of goods and services the UK consumes, nearly half of which arise outside our borders. They have been falling much more slowly than territorial emissions. Until we tackle them, it will be hard to claim that we are a truly low carbon society. This requires action at home, to raise awareness of high carbon sources and promote the consumption of low carbon, resource efficient goods and services, working jointly along global supply chains. As the CCC says “the UK’s changing global trade relationships at the present time presents an opportunity to stimulate global decarbonisation through trade arrangements and the government should explore this alongside the other levers to reduce the UK’s consumption emissions footprint.” About half of the UK’s imported emissions come from territories due to be covered by net zero targets, so there is significant scope for joint action to tackle them, potentially cutting the UK’s consumption footprint in 2050 by up to 90 per cent below 1990 levels.
People have to be at the centre of the transition
With an estimated 59 per cent of emission savings to 2035 relying on some sort of consumer action, they won’t happen without public buy in. There is now widespread public support for climate action and an economic recovery that takes full account of this environmental imperative. However, it’s vital that people understand why specific changes are needed in the way they live, the way they travel and in the things they consume. The government needs to engage the public in decision making and help to make the changes easy, with costs fairly distributed. This was one of the main insights from the recent UK Climate Assembly.
The UK is in the spotlight next year as it prepares to host the most important climate conference since Paris. For this, it needs to not just make bold promises but also rapidly put in place more concrete actions. Both the country’s reputation and the outcome of the summit are at stake.
Recent signals have been good: with the government’s ten point industrial revolution plan and commitment to a net zero aligned 2030 carbon target. However, there is still a policy gap between the country’s current decarbonisation trajectory and where it needs to be to meet its targets.
The government should now grasp this roadmap from the CCC and run with it, putting the sixth carbon budget into law as soon as possible. The raft of strategies it is due to publish in the coming months (some after a very long delay), should appear urgently at the start of 2021, to start to get meaningful long term policies in place. And new funding is needed, for the major investment programme outlined by the CCC and to jump start economic recovery.
As the CCC’s chair, Lord Deben, said earlier this week: “This is the right carbon budget for the UK at the right time.” The government just needs to get on with delivering it.