Net Zero—will the UK lead the way in combatting climate change?

Environment analysis: The Committee for Climate Change’s (CCC) report into the UK’s contribution to stopping global warming comes at a time when climate change is high on the agenda. But, while the government’s commissioning of the report is to be lauded, it remains to be seen whether its response will be enough to ensure the UK retains its position as a world leader in the climate arena, as Simon Tilling, partner in Burges Salmon’s environment law team, explains.

Original News

Government ‘hard pressed to ignore’ new climate change zero-emissions report, LNB News 02/05/2019 65

The CCC has declared in a report that the UK can end its contribution to global warming within 30 years by setting new targets to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. According to Simon Tilling, partner at Burges Salmon, the CCC’s report cannot be easily ignored by the government, and will likely have an effect regardless of whether its recommendations are implemented. Begonia Filgueira, legal director at Foot Anstey, contends that the report is a ‘game changer’. Although Filgueira believes that the 1–2% annual GDP hit estimated by the CCC is not insignificant, she nevertheless emphasises the opportunities of climate change policy. Finally, the charity ClientEarth has welcomed the report, although it has warned the government not to continue incorporating surplus emissions into future carbon budgets.

What is the background leading up to this report?

The CCC report comes at a time when the momentum around urgent action on climate change is hitting a crescendo—Greta Thunberg-inspired school strikes, extinction rebellion’s protests, Sir David Attenborough’s call to arms on prime time and Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency all suggest that it’s an issue the public wants the government to address. All eyes are now on the government to see what it does with this report. But to truly understand the report, we need to go back in time to understand its origins.

The UK set out its stall as a leader in the international climate arena back in 2008 when Parliament passed the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA 2008). It was the first Parliament to set binding carbon reduction obligations on future governments—namely to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050—and to hold future governments to account on progress towards this target by setting up the independent CCC.

The UK continued its influential role in the 2015 negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement, a commitment to carbon reduction targets to keep temperature increases to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit rises to one and a half degrees Celsius.

However, in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report warning of the dangers of a two degree Celsius increase, and pressing for more action to ensure the rise does not exceed one and a half degrees Celsius. Governments across the globe were told that more needs to be done, and faster.

This prompted the government to ask the CCC to advise on whether the targets under CCA 2008 should be revisited and whether a target should be set for net zero. This report has now landed back on government desks—it just so happens it is at a time when numerous sections of society are clamouring for action. That makes the report—and its recommendations—hard to ignore.

What is the significance of the recognition of the need for urgent action?

Credit should be given to the government for asking the question in the first place—it shows that CCA 2008 remains relevant and the advisory role of the CCC is taken seriously. That is good. Of course, what really matters is what the government does with the advice.

What are the key recommendations made in the report?

The crucial recommendation that has come out of the report is the new carbon target suggested by the CCC of net-zero carbon by 2050 for the UK. Scotland should be given a more ambitious target to reach net-zero by 2045 and Wales a slightly lower target of 95% reduction in emissions by 2050, due to fewer opportunities to decarbonise there. This target will mean a greater reduction in carbon emissions than set in CCA 2008 and matches up with the IPCC’s recommendation.

In order to be net-zero by 2050, the report recognises that policy-making will need to accelerate. This will likely focus around tightening up restrictions on key industries but the report makes clear that all sectors should address emissions.

A continued investment of 1-2% of GDP with the costs shared equally across the country is another key recommendation.

Practical suggestions in the report for achieving net-zero include:

  • concentrating on resource and energy efficiency
  • electrification of transport and heating
  • development of hydrogen as a fuel
  • increasing the uptake of carbon capture and storage
  • changing the way we use land

These practical suggestions reflect the report’s focus on the role of technology in achieving the goal of net-zero by 2050. There is already a strong clean tech industry in the UK—a development we have seen at Burges Salmon in the work we do to support the energy and transport sectors. No doubt this will continue to be a focus, in particular developing carbon neutral transport through the use of electric vehicles and electrification of rail. Similarly, there will likely be an increase in environmental standards in certain key emitting sectors.

What has the government said in response to publication of the report?

On the day of publication Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, welcomed the report but said more time was needed to consider the recommendations fully. Prime Minister Theresa May would not go any further when the question arose at Prime Minister’s question time. In fairness, all legislative interventions should be given careful thought before being brought forward, but if there is too long a delay within government then it risks accusations that it is not listening to the central demand for urgent action.

Do you have any thoughts on what the government's formal written response might contain?

Given that it was the government who requested the report, I doubt it will be shelved, and I doubt others in society would allow that to happen. The question is whether whatever comes forward will match the ambition of the report. Maybe it will—the UK is looking for opportunities to lead on the world stage, and it already has a track record in climate change action, so the government might see this as a chance to cement the UK’s role as a climate leader by becoming the first industrialised economy to legislate for net zero and an end to its contributions to climate change. We shall see.

What are the next steps and likely timescales?

Should the government decide to follow the recommendations of the report, then there is first the relatively simple task of legislating (provided, of course, the government can carry a parliamentary majority on this matter—although I suspect they will be able to, given the policy position of the other parties), followed by the rather more difficult task of delivering against those targets. There is a lot to be done.

The execution is always the hardest part. It might be worth concluding with a reminder that part of the CCC’s role is to report on the government’s progress against the CCA 2008 targets, and that the CCC has warned that the UK’s fourth carbon budget (2023–27) is unlikely to be met. There is nothing wrong, of course, with setting more stretching targets even though current projections indicate we will miss the current targets. It might just mean a redoubling of efforts. But the government’s appetite for stretching itself even further—with the impact on society that will result—remains to be seen.



Filed Under: Environment

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