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UK isn't alone in tackling carbon emissions

  • 03 Mar 2014, 16:30
  • Robin Webster

Opponents of the UK's climate policies often argue that green measures are forcing the country to cut emissions faster than its competitors. In fact, new analysis says the UK isn't acting alone.

At least 62 countries around the world are moving ahead with laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - and every major economic power has taken some kind of action. Two new papers lay out international progress on emissions legislation.

Flagship climate policies around the world

An audit of climate legislation across 66 countries, which together account for 88 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, finds that 62 of them have a 'flagship law' serving as a "comprehensive, unifying basis for climate change policy". 

Only a "handful of countries" have not yet engaged with climate change as a policy problem, or fail to see it as a legislative priority, according to a report, published last week by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE international). It's not just rich countries introducing law to tackle emissions - developing countries like Ecuador, Costa Rica, Mexico, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Kenya have also done so as well.

UK's partners are tackling carbon emissions too 

The UK government has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 under the Climate Change Act of 2008. It was trailblazing legislation at the time, but how does that measure up against our nearest neighbours and partners six years later? 

All but one (Turkey) of the UK's main trading partners and competitors have set greenhouse gas emissions reduction or limitation targets, says another report  - this time from the ESRC Centre for Climate Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, released today. 

The chart below lays out some of climate laws introduced by countries the UK trades or competes with: 

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 At 11.57.17

Source: Grantham/ ESRC study into how the UK's carbon targets compare with its competitors. 

Grantham's report relies heavily on data from the GLOBE study, but re-analyses the data to focus on what it means for the UK. When  pledges different countries have made under the international climate negotiations are compared, the UK's commitments are "broadly similar" to other European countries', the Grantham report says. 

UK promises to reduce emissions in the late 2020s - expected to be the subject of a  political fight  this year - also "appear consistent" with the European Union's  commitment to reducing emissions across the bloc by 2030, it argues. 

There are caveats, however. Unlike UK legislation, not all of the flagship laws are legally binding, or have the statutory force of an act of parliament behind them. The UK's climate act is also unusual because it looks so far ahead, covers the whole economy, and requires the government to look at what it's going to be doing to reduce emissions  a decade and a half in advance. 

Setting a price on carbon 

This country's climate change act - the first in the world when it was introduced in 2008 - is seen as 'trailblazing', Grantham argues. But that doesn't mean that it's taking the most action at the moment. 

The UK places a price on carbon - via explicit carbon taxes or implicitly in the form of costs imposed by climate change regulation. When this price is compared to other the charges other countries put on carbon emissions, the UK sits at "around the mid-point", the study says.  

The highest rates are found in European countries with explicit carbon taxes, like Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. The lowest carbon prices are in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas, as the following chart illustrates: 

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 At 15.25.41

Grantham says carbon pricing is 'core' to reducing greenhouse gas emissions - even though such charges only tend to make up a relatively small proportion of overall energy prices. 

The UK's position may fluctuate in the future, in comparison its friends, allies and competitors. But at the moment, it remains part of a leading group of countries, Grantham concludes - a group that includes most of its trading partners. Its targets are higher than many other countries, but they are not necessarily the highest. Where it does differ is in thinking ahead more - an approach which could ultimately make emissions cuts more politically acceptable. 

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