Zero Carbon - the UK needs a more ambitious Climate Change Act

Update on Plan B's court case:  At the first hearing, on Wednesday 4th July, of this case against the government, to require it to increase climate ambition in line with the Paris agreement, the  hearing ran past 5pm to allow all arguments to be heard. The judge announced he would be reserving his judgment until a later date. No timescale was given, but it is likely the government will learn within the next fortnight whether or not it has to face a full judicial review in the case brought against it by Plan B, although it is also possible the Judge's decision may not emerge until the end of the summer. Read more

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Ten years ago this year, the UK's Climate Change Act was passed, committing us to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 (compared to 1990). It was voted through with cross-party support and almost unanimously - a huge achievement. To ensure these are met, the government's official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), have been setting 'carbon budgets' for each five year period towards 2050.

So, what's the problem?

First, the actual policies to cut emissions have not matched up to what is needed. The Committee on Climate Change recently published its progress report making this very clear. Although the UK has reduced CO2 emissions from power generation (largely due to phasing out coal) other sectors such as transport and home energy efficiency have generally failed to cut emissions at all. The UK is off track to meet its carbon budgets in the coming decades. The Committee is calling on the government to use the 'easy wins' (reversing the effective ban on onshore wind in England, for example), and commit to long-term policy-making and strong regulations.

Second, international aviation and shipping were officially excluded. The CCC worked around this by accounting for a limited allowance for aviation emissions within carbon budgets. But despite the committee's protests, government looks set to ignore this limit in future, allowing much greater growth of aviation emissions. This was recently rubber stamped by Parliamentary approval of a third runway at Heathrow.

Third, the targets within the Climate Change Act should be made more ambitious. These targets were set to align with a 50% chance of keeping within 2C. However, in Paris, countries around the world signed up to keep global average warming to 'well below 2C' above pre-industrial levels, and to attempt to keep it to 1.5C. For context, global average temperatures have already gone over 1C (which of course means some parts of the world have heated up much more than this), so this will be challenging, but vital if we are to avoid devastating impacts.

The Committee on Climate Change has noted that the UK's current targets are not ambitious enough to meet these goals, advising that in order to stand a 50:50 chance of meeting the 1.5°C aspiration, global emissions of CO₂ need to fall to net zero by the 2040s. . In April 2018, climate minister Claire Perry announced that she would ask the committee to examine the implications of the Paris Agreement for the UK's emissions reduction targets.

Legal action

Meanwhile, a legal case is being brought against the government by a group of twelve citizens, supported by Plan B, a small charity. Their case seeks to compel the government to revise the UK’s 2050 carbon target and specify a new one based on the latest scientific knowledge and the goals set out by the Paris Agreement which the UK has advanced, signed and ratified.

Lobbying MPs

The Climate Coalition is calling on MPs to support a net zero target ahead of 2050 - so far 131 have signed up to their open letter - find out more and contact your MP.

What would a zero carbon UK look like?

The Centre for Alternative Technology has done a considerable amount of work on this in their Zero Carbon Britain reports. They present different scenarios. While some people may be alarmed at the thought of changes in diet (less meat and dairy) or travel (less flying), others may be inspired by the idea of a healthier, fairer society.

What does 'net' zero emissions actually mean?

Net zero means that greenhouse gases are absorbed to compensate for those emitted. This can be done through land use changes - planting trees and restoring peatlands (woodland restoration is one of the key areas identified by the Committee on Climate Change report. 

How quickly do we need to get to zero?

Given that we are already seeing impacts such as hurricanes exacerbated by climate change, coral reef damage and melting ice caps, one answer to that is "a couple of decades ago". A more sensible answer (but hard to enact in legislation) would be "as soon as possible". To be consistent with a high probability of keeping well below 2C, and fairly distributing the global carbon budget, we should probably be aiming to be at or near net zero by 2030. What is most important is that there is no delay in reducing emissions, since every year we continue to emit carbon dioxide at high levels uses up more of the remaining carbon budget.

The lack of a sense of urgency may be the biggest barrier we face to climate action. Of the MPs who had signed up to the Climate Coalition's letter on a net zero carbon target, over half voted for a massive increase in aviation emissions by expanding Heathrow airport. We have a long battle ahead.

Lord Krebs, former member of the Committee on Climate Change on net zero:

"For many scientists such as myself, who have seen the evidence of global warming accrue over the years, the question, 'can we?' is important, but ultimately subordinate to another: what are the implications of deciding it is not possible? Put simply, unless we do not do this, we do not stop climate change. And that, I would argue, is unacceptable."