UK's climate change contribution pressure-tested for the Paris Agreement and beyond

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The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has issued a set of reports, including reports on UK climate action following the Paris Agreement and implications of Brexit on UK climate policy. We examine the findings and recommendations.

A set of reports from the CCC emphasise that the Paris Agreement marks a significant positive step in global action to tackle climate change, and looks at how targets should be met. The implications of leaving the EU for the UK’s emissions reduction efforts are also considered, along with how the government aims to fulfil its intention to initially convert existing EU laws into UK legislation when the UK leaves the EU.

What are the practical implications of the CCC reports?

The message conveyed by the CCC reports is that the UK is already over-stretched and behind schedule in respect of its emissions targets. The CCC emphasises the importance of the UK achieving net zero emissions before 2100 and believes the UK can reach this target at the same time as the rest of the world, but that the current focus should be on meeting domestic targets, which would still provide a significant contribution to global efforts on tackling climate change, before looking towards compliance with the Paris Agreement.

What is the UK's current emissions target?

The UK emissions target, set in 2008 by the Climate Change Act 2008, is to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050, relative to 1990 levels, consistent with keeping the global average temperature rise to as little as possible above 2°C. The CCC takes the view that the UK's carbon budgets are at least as challenging as the EU's commitments.

Brexit strategy

The overarching theme of the CCC report on the Implications of Brexit for UK climate policy is that the UK should not alter its emissions target and should implement new policy to ensure progress is not impeded by the UK's departure from the EU. The CCC recommends the UK take advantage of Brexit by implementing policies which improve on EU-level approaches. The key messages conveyed by the CCC are:

  • the UK's climate goals have not changed and the 2050 target remains appropriate in terms of contributing to the global effort to mitigate global warming and meeting the aims of the Paris Agreement
  • as the current policies are only expected to deliver half the required emissions reduction, the government's plan to close the policy gap, which will be revealed in the coming months, should set out a clearer direction across the economy, regardless of Brexit, to ensure current targets are met
  • the UK should preserve and strengthen EU-level mechanisms to control emissions as this should cover 55% of the emissions reduction required in the UK to 2030, if the mechanisms continue to be strengthened. The UK should either remain in or replicate schemes which are currently working efficiently, which include:
    • product and efficiency standards (new vehicle fuel efficiency, energy-efficient products, F-gas regulation)
    • the EU Emissions Trading System
    • sectoral targets (reducing landfill under the revised Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC, increasing biofuels uptake under the Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC), and
    • enablers for emissions reduction, such as research collaboration for developing low-carbon technologies
  • the UK should take the opportunity to improve on EU policy, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, which could link farming support to actions that would reduce emissions, and policy goals like the heat policy, which could be shifted to focus on renewable heat, not just low-carbon heat

How does the Paris Agreement's target compare to the UK's target?

The Paris Agreement, which was drafted in December 2015 and will enter into force by the end of 2016, sets a target of reducing the global average temperature increase to below 2°C and working towards a limit of 1.5°C, by setting a further target for net zero global emissions in the second half of this century. The CCC report on UK climate action following the Paris Agreement examines the emissions targets set by the Paris Agreement and the UK's climate change policy and explores the feasibility of the UK incorporating and achieving a net zero emissions target, in line with the Paris Agreement.

The report notes that:

  • in order to reduce the global average temperature increase below 2°C, CO2 emissions will need to be net zero by 2050s-70s and all other greenhouse gas emissions will need to be significantly reduced
  • in order to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C, CO2 emissions will need to reach net zero by the 2040s and all other greenhouse gas emissions will need to reach net zero by the 2060s-80s
  • the above reductions need to begin by 2020 in order to meet the cumulative CO2 budget

Can the UK meet the Paris Agreement targets?

In 2015, the UK emitted 500 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. To achieve net zero domestic emissions, the UK would need to remove 100 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, which the CCC considers to be 'very stretching', considering the capabilities of existing removal technologies and the current emission levels in hard-to-treat sectors. To achieve a reduction of 80% in line with its own target, UK's emissions would need to be 160 million tonnes or less per year by 2050 and this will require significant action.

The CCC noted the following challenges posed by the Paris Agreement emissions targets:

  • current policy in the UK is not enough to deliver the existing carbon budgets set by Parliament and at best, will deliver half of the emissions reductions required to 2030
  • UK policy has been tracking towards a global temperature higher than that set by the Paris Agreement and meeting the UK target will prove to be quite stretching, but it can be met
  • the UK target has been set for 2050 and does not presently extend beyond this
  • the UK currently has no scenarios for how it can achieve net zero domestic emissions
  • achieving net zero would require a combination of further greenhouse gas removals and further breakthroughs in hard-to-treat sectors
  • uncertainty surrounding the domestic feasibility of the Paris Agreement, the inclusion of non-CO2 emissions, and the net zero ambitions of other countries means it makes sense for the UK to remain flexible in how it will meet net zero emissions

The CCC considers that whilst the current UK targets are relatively ambitious, they are not aimed at achieving a temperature increase as low as that in the Paris Agreement and do not extend as far into the future. The CCC does not consider the targets set by the Paris Agreement are unachievable in the sense of reaching net zero emissions, but considers it will be very challenging for the targets to be reached in the time frame set out by the Paris Agreement.

What action should be taken when the Paris Agreement enters into force?

In the short term, the CCC believes that the UK's existing targets, if met, would serve as a meaningful contribution to global climate action and once domestic targets are met, the climate change policy can be recalibrated for net zero emissions, consistent with the Paris Agreement's incremental progress approach. In other words, the UK should focus on meeting the existing 80% target, which may result in a better outcome of a 90% reduction if there is a full and successful roll-out of all the options identified in the CCC's scenarios to 2050.

The report sets out the following recommendations for near-term action:

  • leave the existing 2050 target unaltered
  • publish a robust plan of measures to meet the legislated UK carbon budgets, prepare for the 2050 target, and deliver policies in line with the plan
  • focus on deploying key measures that enable net zero emissions, such as carbon capture and storage, electric vehicles, and low carbon heat, by 2030
  • devise a strategy to develop options in hard-to-treat sectors and greenhouse gas removals, domestically and in collaboration with wider global efforts
  • provide funding and policy support to develop and integrate existing removal technologies

In the long term, if all measures deliver in full and emissions are reduced further, such that they support the aim of the Paris Agreement, the CCC recommends the UK move forward with efforts to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. The CCC notes that the UK can always revisit the target and will have the opportunity to do so in:

  • 2018, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes a special report on 1.5°C and opens an international dialogue to take stock of national actions
  • 2020, when the CCC provides advice on the UK's sixth carbon budget, and when nations publish their mid-century greenhouse gas development plans
  • 2023, when the first formal global stocktake of submitted pledges takes place

Next steps

The CCC will monitor the UK's progress towards carbon budgets and deliver its next report in June 2017.

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