The UK Committee on Climate Change (UK CCC), now under Lord Deben, has represented one of the sounder and more progressive voices on climate change in the ten years since its inception. The UK CCC was created as part of the UK Climate Change Act of 2008 as an independent body with the task of advising the UK Government and Devolved Administrations (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) on emissions targets and to report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change.
In its latest Report to Parliament on the progress made in emission targets, the Committee reviews the lessons learned from the first 10 years of the Climate Change Act and sets forth what the government must do over the next decade to fulfill its obligations to further reduce UK emissions.
The Committee reviews the accumulated evidence, and especially the most recent work, supporting the reality and cost of climate change. There are no surprises here as the evidence continues to demonstrate: rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 (now exceeding 400 ppm); global average surface temperatures reaching record-breaking numbers in 2015-2017, and exceeding 1°C above pre-industrial levels in the last few years; a substantial decline in arctic sea ice over the last decade, averaging a 13% decline per decade; global sea-level rising since the 1990s. Within the UK, we have seen eight of the top ten warmest years for average surface temperatures occurring since 2002, and sea levels around UK rising at about 1.4 mm per year.
In light of the wide-spread and deep consensus on this evidence, and the implications for climate impacts, the question is whether the UK government has been doing what it needs to do to curtail the impacts.
The good news is that UK emissions fell by 3% in 2017, and by 43% from 1990, during a time when the economy grew by over 70%. These reductions are the highest among the G7 countries. While the UK government can claim some credit for its leadership role and climate policies for this decarbonisation, the Committee notes that these reductions are also the result of market forces such as energy efficiency developments, switching from coal to gas in the power sector, and fewer energy-intensive industries in the UK.
Much of the reduction in carbon emissions is attributable to savings in the power sector where UK policies have sent clear market signals and have generated technological developments. As a result, emissions from electricity generation have fallen by 59% between 2008 and 2017, at the same time security of supply was maintained and average energy bills fell.
As impressive as these achievements are, the Committee notes that they rely on picking low-hanging fruit. The power sector is an easily defined sector with few commercial players, a centralized regulatory regime, and limited options for consumers changing their behavior. The same opportunities do not exist with transport, agriculture and buildings where emission reductions have flattened over the past five years. As a result, the UK will not meet its emission targets for the 2020s or 2030s.
Over the past five years, there have been some reductions in emissions in the waste and industry sectors, but very little in agriculture and buildings. In transport there has been an increase in emissions and over the past ten years it has become the largest emitter, accounting for 28% of UK greenhouse gases (GHGs).
Even in these areas there are actions that are feasible within established markets with proven, existing technology. Home insulation to increase energy efficiencies of buildings does not rise to the level of rocket science, yet it remains elusive. Tree planting is well established, if underused. And there are abatement measures in agriculture that continue to escape the voluntary approach favored in this sector.
If just such measures were implemented, the Committee estimates that the future carbon targets are achievable.
In addition, in October 2017 the UK government published its Clean Growth Strategy (CGS), which sets out its policies and proposals to meet the carbon budgets set by Parliament. However, the Committee published its assessment of the Strategy in January 2018, concluding it was ambitious but lacking new specific policies to deliver real emissions reduction. Moreover, the UK Department for Transport continues to delay publication of its ‘Road to Zero’ policy document.
In the meantime, the Committee has offered four messages to get the government back on the path to meeting its emission reduction targets.
First, the government needs to support simple low-cost options. Onshore wind and solar power are notable examples, and these energy sources will be cheaper than new gas plants by 2020. In addition, incentives for home insulation were cut drastically and tree plantings are well below stated goals, and both are readily implemented and cost effective measures.
Second, there needs to be a commitment to effective regulation and strict enforcement. The Committee calls for tougher, long-term standards, in such areas as construction and vehicle emissions. Such measures drive consumer demand and innovation, and implementing them over the long-term provides certainty and lower compliance costs. While the Committee supports strict enforcement, there is little in the Committee’s report that provides guidance on what that would entail. The only concrete instances of enforcement are for building regulations and speed limits on major highways, and there is no discussion on who is to do the enforcement or what resources would be necessary to make it happen, and at what cost. Also missing is any discussion of how enforcement would be carried out in the agriculture and other sectors.
Third, the government is encouraged to stop “chopping and changing of policy.” Several important programmes, including the Zero Carbon Home and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Commercialisation, were recently cancelled at short notice. While foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, consistent environmental policy provides clear signals to the regulated community, which allows them to plan and curtail compliance costs, and it helps investors and consumers to figure out how, and where, to reduce economic risks and protect the environment at the same time.
Fourth, the Committee recommends that the government act now to keep long-term options open. With the commitment for a long-term 80% reduction of emissions, and the deeper cuts being called for through the Paris Agreement, the government also needs a commitment to the means to achieve such targets. Included are carbon capture, zero-carbon transport, floating offshore wind, and hydrogen or electrification of heat and heat pumps.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together accounted for 22% of UK emissions in 2016 (8%, 10%, and 4% respectively), while they account for 16% of the UK’s population and 13% of economic output measured by GVA. The devolved administrations are responsible for only certain areas where climate change measures can be affected, including for example transport demand-side measures, energy efficiency, waste, agriculture and land use.
The Committee has worked with each administration in helping to frame and implement their policies as set in the Scottish Climate Plan and in the Welsh emission targets and carbon budgets. Unfortunately, the only action noted for Northern Ireland is that its relevant Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has, in June 2018, asked the Committee for advice on how to reduce emissions by 2030. In light of the fact that the Devolved Administration in NI has, in effect, been absent for sometime, this lack of action is not surprising but still irresponsible. As it is, NI has lower requirements of emission reductions than Scotland and Wales, in part because of NI’s large share of emissions from the agriculture sector, which is deemed to be a difficult sector to regulate.
The Committee provides the government with a detailed list of specific actions (Milestones) that need to be taken over the next year, as the government begins to deliver more concretely on its Clean Growth Strategy. It also exhorts the government to actively address emission reductions through the priority areas of transport; land use and agriculture; carbon capture and storage; energy efficiency and low-carbon heat in buildings.
The lesson of the successful power sector strategy of the last ten years is that acting early and decisively opens new possibilities for even cheaper overall decarbonisation. That success points to a path forward in these other sectors. At the same time, the government’s failures with respect to onshore wind demonstrate how unclear, inconsistent, politics-driven policies can block that path and lead to a retreat on the ever-critical need to reduce GHG emissions.
UK CCC, Reducing UK emissions – 2018 Progress Report to Parliament (June 2018). bit.ly/2KFu2W0
Damian Carrington, “Housing and car industries should be ‘ashamed’ of climate record,” The Guardian (28 June 2018). https://bit.ly/2KdEIih
Matthew Taylor, “UK politicians ‘failing to rise to the challenge of climate change’,” The Guardian (16 July 2018).
Josh Gabbatiss, “Environmental impact of policies that led to collapse of onshore wind was not considered by government,” Independent (6 May 2018). ind.pn/2rowxU6