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Researchers investigate how to permanently store carbon dioxide in basalt formations
Researchers investigate how to permanently store carbon dioxide in basalt formations. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
UK EMISSIONS
13 October 2016 0:01

CCC: UK ‘needs negative emissions’ to comply with Paris climate deal

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

10.13.16
Simon Evans

Simon Evans

13.10.2016 | 12:01am
UK emissionsCCC: UK ‘needs negative emissions’ to comply with Paris climate deal

The UK will have to use negative emissions to comply with the Paris Agreement on climate change, according to its official climate advisers.

Plans to start using greenhouse gas removal technologies by 2050 should be drawn up immediately, says the government’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC). It adds that global use of these technologies “will be central” to meeting the Paris goal of net-zero emissions.

However, the CCC warns that they are not a substitute for reducing emissions now. It says the UK must “vigorously pursue” efforts “with urgency” to meet its existing carbon budgets to 2030.

In a second report, the CCC says that these goals are written into the domestic Climate Change Act. As such, leaving the EU would have no impact on the legal requirement to comply.

Carbon Brief runs through the CCC’s recommendations.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement, agreed last year, will enter force on 4 November. Its signatories agree to limit global temperature increases to “well below 2C” above pre-industrial levels and to make efforts to keep them below 1.5C.

It also commits them to reaching a “balance” between anthropogenic sources of emissions and sinks – a goal widely interpreted as being roughly equivalent to achieving net-zero emissions.

The CCC, asked to assess what the deal means for the UK, in January said there was no need to amend the fifth carbon budget covering 2028-2032. Now, in light of the Paris deal, it has looked at the UK’s long-term target to cut emissions in 2050 by 80% below 1990 levels.

The CCC says:

“The UK’s current emissions targets are not aimed at limiting global temperatures to as low a level as in the [Paris] Agreement, nor do they stretch as far into the future…The upper end of the ambition in the Paris Agreement impl[ies] UK reductions of at least 90% below 1990 levels by 2050 and potentially more ambitious efforts over the timescale of existing carbon budgets.”

The CCC also says that alternative measures of fairness “nearly all point to more ambitious [UK] action than the existing targets”.

Nevertheless, the CCC says the UK’s existing carbon budgets and its 2050 target should not be changed, saying “they are already stretching and relatively ambitious compared to pledges from other countries”. It adds that it is “too early” to set a target date for the UK to reach net zero.

Explaining the committee’s thinking, Matthew Bell, CCC chief executive, tells Carbon Brief:

“The immediate need after Paris is for action, not the setting of additional UK targets now. A net-zero target is inevitable, but more evidence is needed before a date can be determined. The actions needed to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets are also needed whatever future decision is made on the precise timing to reach net zero.”

Net zero

Reaching net-zero emissions will be a huge challenge. The CCC’s reluctance to recommend a target date at this point stems in part from a lack of evidence on how the UK could get there.

However, the CCC does have one clear message on what it will entail:

“Greenhouse gas removal options (e.g. afforestation, carbon-storing materials, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and direct air capture and storage) will be required alongside widespread decarbonisation in order to reach net-zero emissions.”

Even the most ambitious application of all known options to reduce UK emissions would fail to reduce them to zero, the CCC says.That’s why it thinks the UK will need greenhouse gas removal options, often referred to as negative emissions, to balance the residual.

The CCC already includes negative emissions in some of its scenarios towards the 2050 target. Now it is saying that these options “will be required” by the UK, and the world.

“[Negative emissions] globally and in the UK will be central to realising the Paris aim of balancing greenhouse gas sources and sinks from human activities, given the difficulty of removing all sources.”

This advice is in line with the latest science: the vast majority of 1.5C scenarios rely on greenhouse gas removal options, despite the challenges, uncertainty and disagreement over their use. Resolving these issues will only be possible with research and large-scale tests of deployment, says Prof Pete Smith, chair in plant and soil science at the University of Aberdeen.

Prof Smith tells Carbon Brief:

“I think that it’s really important that we start to deploy negative emissions technologies now. There are lots of things that we…lots of unknown unknowns and known unknowns about negative emissions technologies, but we learn by doing.”

The UK should start now to draw up a strategy for deployment of negative emissions “at scale by 2050”, the CCC says, given the time needed to develop options and bring technologies to market.

If negative emissions are less feasible or less effective than expected, however, then more stringent emissions cuts will be required. Glen Peters, senior researcher at Norwegian climate research institute CICERO, tells Carbon Brief:

“We’ll be screwed in future if it doesn’t work. If you want to hedge your risk against that possibility, you would mitigate more now.”

Distraction

As well as the risk of under-delivery, giving attention to greenhouse gas removal could be seen as a distraction from cutting emissions. As Peters puts it: “It’s pretty convenient from a political perspective. Someone else can do it with negative emissions in future.”

However, the CCC cautions strongly against this. Its report says:

“The current challenges to removal technologies at scale mean they are not a substitute for widespread deployment of zero-emission technologies.”

At a briefing for journalists, the CCC’s chair Lord Deben said:

“Many of these things take a long time to develop. We have to talk about them, and put them into our timeline. But we’ve also got to be very careful, suggesting that somehow if we only did this [negative emissions], we don’t have to do this [mitigation]. It’s all a question of ‘both and’ rather than ‘either or’.”

The CCC says a maximum of 70m tonnes of CO2 could be sustainably removed in the UK each year. This is equivalent to less than 10% of UK greenhouse gas output in 1990, meaning emissions would still have to be cut by more than 90% in order to reach net zero overall.

Prof Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, told Carbon Brief in September:

“I am very sceptical of the negative emissions technologies…I do think we should research them…but I actually think we should assume they do not work when we develop emissions scenarios. My concern…is we are prepared to rely on utopian technologies that do not yet exist. But we’re not prepared to look at actual mitigation today.”

Crunch time

In theory, the UK’s Climate Change Act allows little room for complacency. It says the government must set out how carbon budgets will be met “as soon as practicable” after setting them.

Lord Deben says:

“The fact is that the crunch time is here, because [ministers] have to produce, by law, a plan for reaching the budgets which are now statutorily there, the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. They have accepted those budgets, parliament has accepted those budgets. They now have to do the other bit of it, which is to say how you’re going to reach those budgets.”

The previous government had committed to doing this by the end of the year. Following the EU referendum, an emissions reduction plan is not now expected until early 2017.

UK greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 and the CCC's cost-effective path to the 2050 target (green bar). The grey bars show the UK's first four carbon budgets. The blue bar is the proposed fifth budget. The red lines show emissions projections from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Each budget includes an allowance for international aviation and shipping emissions (IAS). Source: CCC fifth carbon budget advice and projections from DECC. Chart by Carbon Brief.

UK greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 and the CCC’s cost-effective path to the 2050 target (green bar). The grey bars show the UK’s first four carbon budgets. The blue bar is the proposed fifth budget. The red lines show emissions projections from the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Each budget includes an allowance for international aviation and shipping emissions (IAS). Source: CCC fifth carbon budget advice and projections from DECC. Chart by Carbon Brief.

In order to comply with the Act, the plan must chart a credible path to meeting the fifth carbon budget. Section 13 of the Act says:

“The Secretary of State must prepare such proposals and policies as the Secretary of State considers will enable the carbon budgets that have been set under this Act to be met.”

In a shot across the government’s bow, legal NGO ClientEarth this week issued a report saying that its 2011 Carbon Plan is in breach of the Act. The government, by its own admission, does not consider that plan sufficient to meet the fourth carbon budget.

In the government’s words: “There is currently a shortfall against the fourth carbon budget…where our emissions are projected to be greater than the cap set by the budget.”

This shortfall is substantial. The CCC says current policy will, at best, deliver only half the emissions savings required.

Brexit

For some, the solution to the challenge of meeting the UK’s carbon budgets is to relax them. After the UK vote to leave the EU, some saw a risk of a climate policy bonfire, given many of those that supported the vote to leave also favour weakening or even abandoning UK climate action.

However, three key factors will remain unchanged once the UK leaves the EU, CCC chief executive Matthew Bell tells Carbon Brief. First, the scientific evidence on climate change. Second, the Paris Agreement and, third, the UK’s Climate Change Act.

A second CCC report, also published today, emphasises that UK climate goals are written into UK law. The targets have not changed and there is much to do if the UK is to meet them. It says:

“New UK policies will be needed to reduce emissions where policies previously agreed through the EU no longer apply or are weakened…The government’s plan to close the policy gap must be able to meet the UK’s carbon budgets whatever the circumstances as the UK leaves the EU.”

The EU’s emissions trading system (EU ETS) would leave the largest hole if it were dropped when the UK left the EU. More than half of the savings the UK needs to make over the next 15 years are expected to come from the power sector and industry, whose emissions fall under the EU ETS.

Other relevant EU laws include car fuel efficiency standards, product labelling and efficiency standards, as well as regulations covering fluorinated greenhouse gases such as HFCs.

Conclusion

The need for urgent action to cut UK emissions is the overarching message from today’s CCC reports. The CCC makes clear that the UK will sooner or later have to accelerate its efforts to match the ambition of Paris, but says the first priority is to get up to speed against existing targets.

Moreover, it won’t be clear how the UK can meet the Paris goal of reaching net-zero emissions until more work is done to investigate negative emissions – hence the need to start developing a strategy on greenhouse gas removal now.

The CCC’s refusal to call for tougher UK targets will dismay those that see the Paris Agreement as a clear signal of the need to raise ambition. In a statement, Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett says:

“This is very disappointing. The Committee on Climate Change should offer advice on carbon budgets based on the scientific evidence, not what it feels politically expedient.”

Yet the CCC’s reluctance to reopen the debate over UK targets also reduces the risk of them being weakened. Defending the decision, Bell says: “I think, rightly, the committee has a very high threshold for when should we set new targets.”

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