For many western countries, the United Kingdom has served as something of an aspiration when it comes to climate. The country has established a net zero by 2050 target, enshrined it in legislation, and also created an independent government body that issues advice on short-term targets – known as ‘carbon budgets’ – and the policies and changes required to achieve those short term targets.
Recently, the UK upped its climate targets to reflect a greater level of ambition in the lead-up to the COP26 climate meeting due to be held this November in Glasgow. The UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has been incredibly keen to put pressure on other governments, and there has been substantial action domestically thanks, mostly, due to the rapid decline of coal-fired power in the UK’s various power grids. This new target aligned with what was recommended by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), and was broadly (and rightly) welcomed as a positive step.
This week, however, the CCC issued an update on its tracking of progress towards achieving these targets, and the prognosis is not good. While the targets themselves are ambitious, there is a severe lack of policies to see them realised, and the risk of overshoot is extremely high.
“The Government has made historic climate promises in the past year, for which it deserves credit. However, it has been too slow to follow these with delivery”, said the CCC. “This defining year for the UK’s climate credentials has been marred by uncertainty and delay to a host of new climate strategies. Those that have emerged have too often missed the mark. With every month of inaction, it is harder for the UK to get on track”.
An incredible drop in emissions in the UK’s power sector has not been matched across other parts of the economy, such as transport, manufacturing and shipping. Temporary drops due to COVID19 in the transport sector are likely to be fully reversed in the coming years, without drastic policy action. Up to 2035, the majority of emissions cuts required are either at risk of falling behind or badly off track:
Of the cumulative 2,392 megatonnes of CO2-e emissions reductions required between now and 2035, only 12% is ‘fully on track’. 3% is potentially on track, 65% is at risk of falling behind and nearly 20% is definitively falling behind.
Several key areas remain problematic for the government, such as action on diets, reducing demand for aviation, managing waste and creating low carbon heat networks. There has been little progress in upgrading buildings to improve energy efficiency (due to the scrapping of policies in 2012). Heat pump installations remain very significantly below the levels required to reduce the use of fossil fuels in British buildings. Emissions from waste have stalled. The government is planning 10 megatonnes of CO2 reduction per year by 2030 from CCS, but the CCC’s plan involves 22 MTCO2 per year by 2030.
The report is more optimistic about renewable energy and electric vehicles. The slowdown in renewable growth in 2020 is likely to be temporary, and good groundwork has been laid for EV growth, including a network of chargers and the ban on combustion engine sales by 2030. Whether UK government policy beats or misses the CCC’s targets
A net zero strategy to be released by the UK government later this year “will have to address the shortfall, strengthening weaker commitments to be closer to the Committee’s pathways”.
In general, the UK government seems far more comfortable with technological, profit-driven business and industrial changes, and has avoided any potential change from consumer choices to reduce emissions. “We note that there are a wide range of levels available to promote low-carbon choices, including enabling measures and nudges, ensuring supporting infrastructure is available and more interventionist measures using regulations and the tax system”.
This is likely reflective of a nervousness to make changes that could instigate attacks from opposing political parties or conservative media outlets. But a major survey released on Friday shows that UK citizens are surprisingly willing to consider personal lifestyle changes in conjunction and partnership with technological change to achieve decarbonisation goals:
Crucial point from the govt's new climate public awareness & perceptions survey released today: the public clearly recognise that changes to lifestyles are integral to meeting these goals. But govt action is focused *exclusively* on tech change https://t.co/dFyfLMOCnD pic.twitter.com/IvbOP1UPQo
— Leo Murray (@crisortunity) June 25, 2021
Which, fascinatingly, was replicated in a study of German attitudes towards decarbonisation, in which citizens argue for stronger technological and behaviour policies, including a stunning preference for introducing speed limitations on German road transport famous for its autobahns:
Germany's citizens' climate council — a randomly chosen but representative sample of 160 ppl — presented its proposals yesterday. Among them: coal exit by 2030, 90% renewable energy by 2040, speed limit on autobahns & more: https://t.co/HoEny94vYH
— Zia Weise (@ZiaWeise) June 25, 2021
This report seems important because it reflects the very simple but important truism that even when a government shows ambition on climate, that ambition will still be reflected through its ideological and political views. The UK’s government is very much pro-business and technologically-minded, which creates some immediate and significant wins. But the problem is a diverse, complex and varied one.
The cultural, social and behavioural components of the climate challenge can’t be forever ignored – but the good news is that we are each significantly more likely to welcome transformative social change than is widely believed. Part of the reason? The survey of UK citizens found a widespread and strong belief that health and wellbeing would be improved in a scenario in which emissions are essentially eliminated within the next 30 years:
Though a survey of this kind isn’t very likely in Australia, I’m sure it would show something similar. The level of public support out there for greater levels of ambition on climate is huge – it’s just up to politicians to seize on it.
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