The UK government only has 12-18 months left to raise its game on climate policy, or risk “embarrassment” as the likely host of the COP26 UN summit late next year.
That’s the message from the latest annual Committee on Climate Change (CCC) progress report, submitted to parliament and government, which says the time to strengthen policy is “now”.
The UK remains off track against its legally binding carbon budgets and gets failing report cards on a series of indicators developed by the CCC. These cover government policy and progress on the ground in cutting emissions, as well as plans to protect the country from growing climate risks.
But CCC chief executive Chris Stark told a press briefing launching today’s report: “We are not on track…having a net-zero target will not magically fix this problem.” He added:
“The government must show it is serious about its legal obligations…[its] credibility really is at stake here…There is a window over the next 12-18 months to do something about this. If we don’t see that, I fear the government will be embarrassed at COP26.”
In a leaked letter sent ahead of the net-zero goal’s adoption, chancellor Philip Hammond also said the target alone would lack credibility without “an ambitious policy response in this parliament”.
Today’s CCC report reviews progress to date and suggests what that ambitious response should look like. It also includes a biannual review of adaptation plans for England.
Rapid cuts in emissions over the past five years have masked a lack of underlying progress towards the UK’s longer-term climate goals, the CCC report says.
From the average CO2 emissions of new cars to the number of lofts insulated or the hectares of forest planted, just seven of 24 on-the-ground indicators are on track, the committee says.
The government’s own projections reflect this situation, suggesting the UK will miss its existing carbon targets by a significant margin, as shown in the chart, below. Indeed, the latest projections show the gap has widened over the past year.Historical UK greenhouse gas emissions (dark blue line and shaded area, millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalent, MtCO2e) and government projections to 2032 (light blue). These are set against the first five carbon budgets (red steps) and a net-zero target for 2050 (red line), as well as the previous 80% by 2050 target (dashed yellow). Note that emissions since 2008 and the projections to 2032 show the UK’s “net carbon account”. The 80% by 2050 target shown here includes the CCC’s 40MtCO2 allowance for international aviation and shipping, which are not currently included in the carbon budgets. This effectively entails an 85% cut for the rest of the economy. Source: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy emissions data and projections, plus Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
As the committee has noted previously, recent progress has come almost exclusively from the electricity generation sector, where a combination of demand reduction, carbon pricing and renewable incentives has seen emissions plummet.
In contrast, the report says:
“Progress in deploying measures to reduce emissions is off-track across transport, buildings, agriculture and land use. In these areas, progress to date is behind virtually every indicator we track, often by a wide margin.”
The CCC says energy efficiency improvements are being installed five times slower than they should be overall. Just 18,000 solid walls were insulated in 2018, against the CCC’s indicator target of 90,000. Only 43,000 lofts were insulated, against a 545,000 benchmark.
There has been a similar lack of progress in the transport sector, where only one of five CCC indicators was met in 2018. The total distance driven on the UK’s road was just within its benchmark, whereas indicators were comprehensively breached for new car and van CO2 emissions, electric vehicle registrations and biofuel uptake.
[The CCC plans to update and broaden its indicators after it recommends the level of the sixth carbon budget, covering 2033-2037, in advice due next year. The new indicators are “likely” to “reflect the need for more rapid deployment” towards net-zero emissions and to also cover the “demand side”, for example consumer choices around food or travel.]
Government projections suggest recent lopsided progress is set to continue under the current suite of policies, as the chart below shows.Past and projected future emissions in the UK, by sector, millions of tonnes of CO2. Projections are shaded grey. Source: BEIS energy and emissions projections. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Despite the need for increased ambition, the government has delivered on only one of 25 policy actions identified by the CCC last year as being necessary to get the UK back on track, having made no moves at all in 10 of those areas. The progress report calls this record “disappointing”.
Speaking to Carbon Brief, Stark credits the government for the “big, bold step” of adopting the net-zero target. But when it comes to policy development over the past year, he says: “We’ve seen incremental progress at best.”
The CCC’s progress report notes:
“Only three new policies have been quantified and newly included within these [government] projections [shown in the charts, above]: Boiler Plus, Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting for Business, and Industrial Heat Recovery Support.
The savings newly included from these policies amount to less than 5MtCO2e [million tonnes of CO2 equivalent] across each of the five-year fourth and fifth carbon budget periods [equivalent to around a quarter of 1% of those budgets].
There remain many other areas in which significant ambitions were outlined by the government in the clean growth strategy in October 2017, but where policy has not yet been finalised.”
Most items on the to-do list given to government last year have seen zero progress – or are still pending completion. These include “stretching” new CO2 targets for cars and vans beyond 2020, a plan to limit aviation emissions in line with carbon budgets and “concrete policies” to deliver government ambition on home energy efficiency.
Speaking to Carbon Brief last year, Stark said the policy actions for government listed in the CCC’s report amounted to “holding their feet to the fire more actively that we’ve done before”.
Ultimately, however, the committee has limited powers to do more than reporting to parliament on government inaction and making recommendations for how to get back on track. If progress continues to fall short, then the Climate Change Act allows for legal action to be brought by third parties. CCC chair Lord Deben told a press briefing:
“The government can’t ignore this [legally-binding set of targets]…[and] there will come a point where this will become a justiciable issue…What I want to do is save the government from the enormous embarrassment of being directed by the courts to take action.”
Deben adds that “I feel I might be first witness for the prosecution” in any legal challenge to the government’s plans for cutting emissions.
Stepping up the pace
The UK will have to cut its emissions some 50% faster over the next three decades if it is to meet its new net-zero emissions target, today’s CCC progress says, compared to what would have been needed to meet the previous 2050 goal.
It will also have to make cuts 30% faster than the average pace since 1990, which has seen emissions fall by two-fifths. The report says:
“This is an indication of how substantial the step up in action must be to cut emissions in every sector. It is especially acute for those sectors such as transport, buildings and agriculture where emissions have not fallen significantly over recent years.”
Deben told journalists: “[Government] do understand the seriousness of the challenge but they don’t seem to be able to link that to action…This does mean stepping up the pace very seriously right across the board.”
The committee’s net-zero advice provides a roadmap for reaching net-zero emissions, whereas today’s report gives a more detailed set of directions for the next 12-18 months. As with last year’s report, this comes in the form of 30 policy priorities for the next year, shown in the table, below.
The need for action is particularly acute, the CCC suggests, because the UK is expecting to host the COP26 UN climate talks in late 2020.
Stark tells Carbon Brief: “You cannot be credible in the [COP] presidency if you only set a new target.” He says the UK also needs a coherent policy package in place to deliver that target and suggests the CCC will not shy away from calling out continued inaction in next year’s progress report – even if this is embarrassing for the government in the months before it hosts the summit.
Among the areas where further ambition is needed are the government’s loose pledge to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040, which is too vague, lacks ambition and “fails to grasp the opportunity of electric vehicles that are expected to be cheaper to buy, cheaper to run and less polluting from before 2030”, the report says.
The ban should be brought forward to 2030 or 2035 at the latest within the next year, the CCC says.
On aviation, the government “has not set out the implications of limiting emissions for aviation demand”. Nor has it formally included those emissions within the UK’s carbon budgets, despite stating its intention to do so.
This was a missed opportunity, Stark says, which should be remedied within the year. His committee will write to the new secretary of state for transport, once appointed, to set out the scale of the net-zero challenge for international aviation and shipping.
On buildings, the report says:
“Over 10 years after the Climate Change Act was passed, there is still no serious plan for decarbonising UK heating systems or improving the efficiency of the housing stock, while no large-scale trials have begun for either heat pumps or hydrogen.”
The committee calls for policies within the next year to address efficiency in “all buildings”, as well as a low-carbon heat strategy, a plan for developing low-carbon hydrogen and a rollout of large-scale trials of hydrogen use.
The need for renewed urgency in climate policy is not simply a matter of avoiding embarrassment at COP26, with the CCC adding:
“Without strong near-term action, it would quickly become infeasible to decarbonise sufficiently to reach net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 without resorting to major scrappage schemes and/or much greater disruption to lifestyles, which may not be deliverable.”
Nor is this only a question of meeting the net-zero target, given the UK is already set to miss its fourth and fifth carbon budgets and these may need tightening in line with the new 2050 goal.
The committee will deliver its advice on the sixth carbon budget by the end of next year and this will include a review of the targets for earlier years. The report says:
“[A] more ambitious long-term target is likely to require outperformance of the carbon budgets legislated to date. The committee will revise its assessment of the appropriate path for emissions over the period to 2050 as part of its advice next year on the sixth carbon budget.”
Alongside the net-zero imperative, the committee will also need to consider the potential fallout from Brexit, which may necessitate a change in UK carbon accounting due to leaving the EU ETS.
Two other potentially significant accounting changes are in the works, which will add around 5-10% to UK emissions during the fourth and fifth budget periods, thus making those targets harder to meet. These changes relate to the way that emissions from peatland are measured and the relative weighting given to non-CO2 greenhouse gases.
The CCC is set to advise government on how to handle these changes. Last month, ministers cited concern over the implications when using “flexibilities” under the Act to carry forward emissions from the second carbon budget into future years – a move that effectively weakens the UK’s goals.
Change of mindset
More broadly, there is a need for a “complete change of mindset” across Whitehall, Stark says, with the net-zero goal running through the whole of government “like the letters in a stick of rock”.
This may need a new governance structure that could be based around a cabinet committee on climate chaired by the prime minister, the CCC suggests – a setup recently adopted by the German government. Stark tells Carbon Brief:
“Embedding climate policy properly across government is a governance challenge for the new prime minister…it does need to be at that level and have oversight from key ministers.”
The report explains: “[T]he prime minister could chair regular meetings of a climate cabinet that includes the chancellor and relevant secretaries of state, with transparent public reporting of progress and plans.”
The CCC “will probably want to return” to the question of climate policy governance, Stark says, given its central importance to delivering the UK’s targets.
Referring to the current arrangement, where climate policy is run from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Stark tells Carbon Brief: “I think that something needs to change.”
He points out that the net-zero goal was only agreed once the prime minister and chancellor “paid attention” – whereas responsibility for climate policy at present is generally “very dispersed”.
Stark tells Carbon Brief:
“My biggest disappointment of the past year is that enthusiasm to do something on climate change has only manifested in a new target…Policy just hasn’t kept pace with new desire for climate action…My hope is that that catches up…and the coming year becomes a place where we talk optimistically about the opportunities from climate policy.”
Urgent climate risks
This year also sees the committee publishing its biannual progress report on preparing for climate risks in England, in a separate 244-page document.
This, perhaps, is even more critical of government progress to date. It sets out the reasons why adaptation should be preparing the country for up to 4C of warming, even though the global community is aiming to keep to a 1.5C limit. The report then says:
“[T]here is little evidence of adaptation planning for even 2C. Government cannot hide from these risks…[There is] only limited evidence of the present UK government taking [the challenge of adapting to climate change] sufficiently seriously.”
The government’s own climate change risk assessment identified 56 risks and opportunities from future warming, the CCC notes, yet the latest National Adaptation Programme only formally addresses 35 of these. This effectively ignores 21 risks, of which 13 were marked “more urgent”.
These 13 “urgent” risks include weather-related food production shocks, risks to the UK from international violent conflict and change in the suitability of land for forests and farming.
The fact that the government was responding to its own risk assessment makes it “even more shocking” that the adaptation programme fails to address many of those risks, Baronnes Brown, chair of the CCC’s adaptation sub-committee told a press briefing.
Across 33 sectors of the English economy, 12 have no plan for long-term climate change, the CCC says. The remaining sectors are failing even to prepare for 2C of warming, it adds, with none of the plans scoring highly in the committee’s latest assessment, shown in the grid, below.
Stark tells Carbon Brief: “There are some pockets of really good practice on adaptation planning, especially in the water sector and infrastructure more broadly…[But] progress in managing risk is not good enough in any area [with no sectors showing in the leftmost column of the grid, above].”
The CCC report notes: “[I]mprovements in planning for climate change are not necessarily costly or difficult, but until they are addressed we cannot be confident that England is preparing for the risks of a changing climate.”
CCC: UK has just 18 months to avoid ‘embarrassment’ over climate inaction
CCC: Government must act now to meet UK's net-zero climate goal
Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email.
Expert analysis directly to your inbox.
Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email.