By Adam Walter
In June 2019 the UK government agreed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Net zero means that the greenhouse gas emissions produced will be fully offset, predominantly through natural carbon sinks such as forests. This crucial commitment has taken many changes within government and a shift of attitudes globally.
Despite global temperatures rising by 0.18°C since 1981 and nine out of ten of the warmest years recorded occurring since 2005, parliament only approved a motion that declared a national climate change emergency in 2019. It is evident that an emergency is what we are facing in regards to climate change. The temperature is continually rising and data indicates that the UK is now thirty times more likely to experience a heatwave than it was at the beginning of the century. Furthermore, there has been a 12% shift in average temperatures, meaning they are far more likely to reach the heights of the 2018 heatwave and beyond. How did we get to this point and what are the next steps that the British government will look to implement?
The UK's Carbon Budgets
Since the turn of the century there has been more emphasis on combatting climate change from within the Houses of Commons. This was illustrated by the 2008 Climate Change Act which included a legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This type of agreement was the first of its kind and was passed via a landslide majority - 463 to 3. Within this agreement the government was set carbon budgets. Each budget provides a five-year cap on total greenhouse gas emissions, these slowly become less and less as we head towards 2050 (image 1). The Committee on Climate Change reported that the first and second carbon budgets (2008-12; 2013-17) have been met. The UK is on track to outperform the third (2018-22) but is not on track to meet the fourth or fifth (2023-27; 2028-32).
However, these first five carbon budgets exclude aviation and shipping, which together account for over 10% of UK emissions. Even more worryingly, Professor Kevin Anderson points out that the UK’s fair split of the global carbon budget (660,000 MtCO2e) from 2020 until forever would be 2,800 – 3,700 MtCO2e in order to stay below the threshold of global temperatures rising by 2°C (below 1.5°C is now looking very unlikely), which would still cause many deaths mostly in poorer areas of the world. Anderson points out that the government’s current plans for carbon budgets: will result in a 2.5-3°C rise in temperatures; ignore international equity; pass a huge burden onto future generations to develop technologies to suck carbon out of the air.
UK Government Initiatives on Climate Change
So, what have the government done to try and meet these targets? As of 1st April 2019 they introduced taxes on carbon emissions in a move to stabilise carbon prices and reduce further emissions that cause damage to the environment. However, there is a huge inequality in these taxes which is stopping their effectiveness. An article on Financial Times shows that road transport is taxed at £109 per tonne of carbon emitted, whilst heating homes with heating oil is only charged £7 per tonne of carbon and flying is effectively subsidised by £26 because no VAT is charged. Similarly, agriculture, which accounts for about 10% of UK emissions, has negative carbon prices, partly due to the 50% subsidy to red diesel (a fuel only allowed to be used in agriculture and construction). According to the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, charging £80 per tonne of carbon by 2030 is an effective carbon tax to reduce emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels. Textbook economics would suggest that these need to be raised even higher than £80 per tonne in order for Britain to meet net zero.
The government is also exploring energy efficiency as a means of combatting climate change. Britain has an Energy Company Obligation, which sees larger firms tasked with increasing the efficiency of people’s homes throughout the nation. The government has announced its aim to install smart metres within homes by 2024, and this will hopefully lead to a lessening of energy consumption and provide more efficient, streamlined usage.
Beyond this, the UK has been heavily involved with the UN and its continued efforts to aid the environment and lessen damage. Britain has increased international climate finance by 50% and has hosted speeches and rallies from key figures such as Greta Thunberg.
The UK's 10 Point Climate Change Plan
More recently, Prime Minster Boris Johnson announced the UK’s 10-point plan to help curb the climate emergency:
A pledge to quadruple offshore wind power by 2030 to produce enough to power every home in the UK.
Cars and vans powered solely by petrol/diesel will not be sold from 2030. This act is a push towards the use of electric vehicles, supported by government grants for approved vehicles and chargers. The sale of some hybrid cars and vans will continue until 2035.
To have five gigawatts of ‘low carbon’ hydrogen production capacity by 2030, with the promise of a town heated entirely by hydrogen by 2030.
A £525m investment into nuclear power for a large nuclear plant and advanced small nuclear reactors, which could support 10,000 jobs.
Promotion of cycling, walking and public transport as well as investing into zero-emissions public transport, although no new schemes have been announced.
Supporting research projects for zero-emission planes and ships.
Making homes, schools and hospitals more energy efficient using £1bn next year for insulation of these buildings. Plus a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028.
£200m invested into developing world-leading carbon capture technology, with a target to remove 10 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030.
Planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year.
Making the City of London the global centre of green finance.
Whilst most of us can agree that the plan is a step in the right direction, as pointed out by Greenpeace’s Rebecca Newsom, it is flawed, “It’s a shame the prime minister remains fixated on other speculative solutions, such as nuclear and hydrogen from fossil fuels, that will not be taking us to zero emissions anytime soon, if ever”. The government seem to be putting more effort into removing carbon they produce than lowering the carbon emissions in the first place, which is vital if we are to reach net carbon by 2050. Labour’s Ed Miliband also took issue with the proposal, saying that it was low on ambition and contained several “reheated pledges”. “France and Germany are investing tens of billions of euros. This provides, at best, £4bn of new money over several years.”
There is a lot of work left to be done. Whilst the UK is taking steps to lessen the damage done to the environment and to slow climate change, this is an ongoing battle that cannot afford to lose momentum.