A 61% cut in emissions by 2030 below 1990 levels remains the minimum effort required of the UK, despite the increase in global ambition after the Paris climate agreement.
That’s the conclusion of today’s letter to Amber Rudd, the energy and climate change secretary, from her official advisers the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).
Although the letter fails to recommend higher ambition it does further cement the CCC’s position on the UK’s fifth carbon budget, which must be set in law before the end of June. It also promises to look at whether the UK’s 2050 goal remains sufficient.
In November, the CCC recommended a 61% cut in territorial emissions for the UK’s fifth carbon budget, spanning 2028-2032. This is equivalent to a 57% cut to the UK’s net carbon account, which includes the UK’s fixed share of the EU’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) rather than actual emissions from the power sector and heavy industry.
This recommendation was based on the UK’s long-term, legally-binding requirement to cut its emissions in 2050 to 80% below 1990 levels. In turn, the 80% 2050 target was based on a global goal of limiting warming to no more than 2C this century.
The Paris climate agreement surprised many by raising this global ambition. It aims to keep warming “well below 2C” and promises to “pursue efforts” to limit the increase to no more than 1.5C. It also aims to reach net zero global emissions in the second half of the century.
The CCC’s letter acknowledges this, but says that, for the moment, the fifth carbon budget target remains sufficient. It says:
It’s worth noting that the CCC is only saying the fifth carbon budget remains sufficient. It has not yet passed judgement on the 2050 target, or any longer-term goal for the UK.
Apart from the Paris target of net zero emissions, the UK has also backed the G7 call for “decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century”. This was interpreted by some observers as an aim to phase out fossil fuels.
The letter says the CCC will now consider whether the UK’s 2050 target is “still sufficiently ambitious”. It will also consider the most appropriate target for the UK after 2050. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband is leading calls for the UK to adopt a zero emissions target in the wake of Paris.
Meanwhile, the CCC’s letter says the focus for raising 2030 ambition should turn to the EU’s target. The EU goal to cut emissions by “at least 40%” below 1990 levels by 2030 is “not on a cost-effective path to 2C or below”, the CCC says.
The previous coalition government had pushed to raise the EU 2030 target to a 50% cut, in the context of a “global comprehensive agreement”. The UK holds the rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2017, offering a chance to push this line again, should it choose to do so.
If EU ambition is increased, for instance, if the EU ETS cap is tightened, then the CCC says the UK carbon budgets should be tightened, too. The committee will revisit its budget advice if there is any “significant change” in circumstances.
The CCC says it has already found ways for the UK to cut emissions by a further 200m tonnes of CO2 equivalent during 2028-2032. If these cuts were made on top of the recommended fifth carbon budget it would raise the UK goal to 62%, up from the current 57% recommendation.
Securing UK action
For now, however, the UK remains well short of its carbon budgets for the mid-2020s on. The CCC appears to be attempting to secure action to close this gap in ambition, while also ensuring its recommended targets for 2028-2032 are accepted by government.
There was a long-running battle over the fourth carbon budget between the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Treasury, described to Carbon Brief by then-secretary of state Sir Ed Davey as “a bit of a war”. The budget was eventually confirmed after a review.
At the time of the fifth carbon budget advice in November, CCC chair Lord Deben was already laying out the battle lines, telling journalists:
Today’s letter defends this position even more strongly, describing the recommended target as “a minimum level of UK effort”. It also repeats that new policies are needed to meet the fourth and fifth budgets, saying the government must “prepare properly for the ambition agreed in Paris”.
Matthew Spencer, director of thinktank Green Alliance, tells Carbon Brief:
The CCC’s letter adds that the UK is not acting alone:
New policy needed
The CCC lists its priority areas for additional policy effort. These include extending funding for the Levy Control Framework into the 2020s and “urgently” developing a new approach to carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the wake of the decision to axe a £1bn commercialisation project.
There is a “significant shortfall” on efforts towards low-carbon heating, the letter says. It also wants support for electric vehicles to continue. The existing £5,000 electric car grant is due to fall in March and could expire in March 2017.
Low-carbon development should become a priority for the commission, Spencer tells Carbon Brief, rather than a matter of legal compliance as in the organisation’s “lousy” draft remit. The CCC says it will work with the commission to “develop cost-effective efforts to tackle climate change”.
The CCC’s letter is particularly pointed on CCS, which is “vital” to meeting the longer-term goal of Paris of net zero and possibly negative emissions. In a two-page addendum it says alternatives to CCS would be “substantially more expensive…even allowing for the initial high costs”.
The call for urgent action on CCS is echoed in a letter from the Aberdeen and Grampian Chambers of Commerce, Energy UK, the Trade Union Congress, the Association of UK Coal Importers and Producers and a range of thinktanks, NGOs and other CCS interests.
The letter expresses its “dismay and deep concern” over the “very damaging” decision to withdraw CCS funding. It says that CCS is “an infrastructure investment with long project lead-times and not simply a ‘widget’ that can be imported.”
DECC has promised a new carbon reduction strategy “towards the end of 2016”.
A DECC spokesperson says:
Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth chief executive says:
Damien Morris, head of policy at carbon markets thinktank Sandbag says:
Sandbag wants the UK carbon budgets to limit actual emissions, rather than using the nominal EU ETS allocation described above. Under current budgeting rules, actual emissions from the power sector are ignored for carbon accounting purposes.
Any excess emissions above the UK’s EU ETS allocation have to be balanced by carbon credits bought from elsewhere. However, this situation puts real reductions in the UK economy at risk because it reduces the incentive to invest early in cutting carbon.
Dr David Clarke, chair of a Royal Academy of Engineering working group on UK energy says:
The committee’s letter highlights the need for a continued focus on delivering a cost-effective, low carbon energy system for the UK and that our targets for carbon reduction in the future may need to be made tighter to meet the ambitions agreed to in Paris last year at COP21.
This reinforces the requirement set out in our recent report A critical time for UK energy policy for urgent progress on CCS demonstration, new nuclear build, roll-out of renewables and new approaches to smarter demand management and domestic heating. Urgent action is needed from Government to clarify and stabilise market mechanisms and incentives in order to give industry the confidence to invest in new developments and to ensure the necessary support for skills and supply-chain development is put in place.