United Kingdom

UK climate body lays out economy-boosting plan to reach net zero emissions

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A new report released yesterday by the UK government climate advisory body has provided incredible detail on how the UK will move towards net zero by 2050 while maintaining economic competitiveness, and ensuring affordable access to energy.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) released a wealth of materials, two years in the making, detailing a sector-based carbon budget for the years 2033 to 2037. The UK’s climate regulation splits the path to 2050 into five year budgets, allowing a quantity of carbon emissions within those five years that can be emitted. In Australia, Independent MP Zali Steggall’s net zero bill is modelled on this.

The report focuses on the period directly after the UK’s relatively ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target of 68%, announced this week ahead of a weekend ‘Climate Action Summit’, and covers significant changes to electricity, households, transport, industry, agriculture and land use in the UK. It has been presented by the CCC as seeking a balance between ambition, affordability and public acceptability. Much of the detailed documents published focus on cost, benefits and the pace of change in the UK’s economy.

“This program is going to boost activity and boost employment across the economy”, said Mike Thompson, CCC Director of Analysis. “There’s a real prospect here that this program could boost GDP. While we tackle climate change, the UK could end up better off, as well as healthier, more comfortable homes, cleaner air to breathe, more green spaces and benefits for biodiversity”, he said.

“We simply don’t need fossil fuels to access cheap energy anymore. Any notion that we can’t afford to tackle climate change is clearly nonsense”. Thompson provides a chart illustrating that while the capital costs of replacing fossil fuel infrastructure in the UK will be around £50 billion per year, the savings from not buying and transporting fossil fuels offsets that around 2040.

The report also details a post-coal climate action environment. The UK has rapidly phased coal out of its power generation sector, but the next steps will need to focus on transport, homes, gas, food and behavioural factors that significantly complicate the intersections between policy, economics and social shifts.

“There are positive lessons from power sector decarbonisation but each of these sectors raises different policy challenges. Policies must provide a clear direction to millions of people and businesses in the UK, shifting incentives to favour low-carbon options and tackling barriers to action”, write the authors, in the report. Like many other scenarios of future climate action, electrification does the heavy lifting – a task which involves many different players.

The report creates new pressure for the UK government to begin implementing even more ambitious policies after the release of its ’10 point plan‘, which introduces several significant new measures but remain insufficient to put the UK on a clear pathway to net zero by 2050. Given the new focus on behavioural and broader societal change, there is also a focus on fairness, equity and the burden of costs in the report, and a close tie-in with the UK’s ‘citizens climate assembly‘ initiative, in which representative groups from society are interviewed about their views on potential climate actions.

“We won’t win – we can’t win – if we don’t do this in a just and fair way. We need a just transition, and that is what the climate committee in producing the sixth carbon budget, is planning”, said chairman of the CCC Lord Deben, in a livestream of the report’s launch.

It is also framed at positioning the UK as a strong leader on climate action, weighting much of the required climate action in the coming years, as opposed to putting off the process and placing much of the action in the 2040s. “We’re doing 60% of the emissions reductions in the first 15 years, and then 40% in the next”, said Analysis Director Thompson, in the same livestream. “By front loading, we’re minimising the UK’s contribution to cumulative emissions”. The report highlights this too. “While many countries have followed the UK in adopting Net Zero as a long-term emissions target, global ambition to 2030 remains far short of what is required.

As President of the next UN climate talks (and of the G7) in 2021, the UK is in a position to influence others, but to do so must itself adopt an ambitious 2030 goal. Reducing emissions early matters as it is global cumulative emissions that drive climate outcomes”. This leadership issue is described more poetically by Chairman Lord Deben. “We can give back to the world something extremely special. And this is the beginning of a great journey in which we, with others, will lead the world to battle its most serious material threat”.

This important focus on short-term targets and the detailed guts of climate and energy policies comes at an extremely important time. Many countries are considering whether to update Paris targets that were formed a half-decade ago, with some, such as Australia, steadfastly refusing to update these targets. The new report will come as a further pressure point for these countries.

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