Spotlight Activity: United Kingdom’s Climate Change Act
Back in 2008, the UK took a global lead in efforts to tackle climate change by setting a legally binding target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. However, this target, an 80% reduction on 1990 levels by 2050, was posted on the basis of a global outlook that has quickly become outdated, leaving us falling well short of the necessary steps to prevent climate breakdown. A step up in ambition is vital – and with the government now facing a potentially costly climate lawsuit and public concern for the environment growing, one may be on the horizon.
Since 2008’s Climate Change Act target, set to deliver a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 2C, our understanding of deadly climate tipping points has matured. Key ice sheets are now projected to collapse between 1.5C and 2C warming, locking in metres of sea level rise for hundreds of years and leaving low-lying nations underwater. At 1.5C, the world’s coral reefs have some chance of recovery, but at 2C they vanish completely, while we experience longer heatwaves, more intense rainstorms, and decreased crop yields.
As a response to the increasing urgency of the climate science community, in 2015 the Paris Agreement set in stone a commitment to limit warming to 1.5C, albeit with “well below 2C” as the absolute redline. A forthcoming UN-linked review of the impacts and feasibility of 1.5C is expected to further intensify the global ambition to stick to this magic number, and no higher.
Ten years on, the UK’s call bell reverberates unto the global community more as a death knell to the vulnerable than a chime of climate leadership. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s official (independent) climate watchdog, has publicly branded the goal it initially recommended as too weak. The government’s position is even being challenged in the courts by charity Plan B, who argue that the gap between the Climate Change Act and the UK’s international obligations under the Paris Agreement is irrational, unsafe, and unlawful.
Despite the government having claimed as recently as January in response to the case that it was acting on the CCC’s advice that a more stringent target was unfeasible – a claim the CCC itself contradicted – energy and clean growth minister Claire Perry has now announced that the government will seek official advice on strengthening the targets after the global 1.5C review in October. Given that the CCC, who recommended the original 80% target, advised 18 months ago that the UK would need an 86-96% cut in emissions by 2050 for just a 50% chance of 1.5C, there is a distinct possibility that it will be the first among the economic powerhouses to enshrine zero emissions into law.
Perry may just be following environment minister Michael Gove’s example in using Brexit to curry green favour, with a new UK-specific Paris pledge that leaves the EU’s 80-95% by 2050 target in the dust. Whatever the reasons, the genuine prospect of a target with real ambition is heartening. Now, continued collective pressure must be applied to ensure prospect becomes reality. Sebastian Kaye, claimant in the legal case set for a hearing on July 4, welcomed Perry’s announcement, but added that “urgency is still lacking, and delay only damages the feasibility of stopping short of the climate cliff edge”.
And while a strengthening in ambition would be a positive step, it is much less than half the battle. The UK is highly unlikely to meet even its existing climate targets with current policies, and while the government has upped its environmental rhetoric in recent months, concrete policy has not followed these vague aspirations.
The government needs to back tangible and radical solutions at the earliest opportunity, or debate over targets is moot. That means revolutionising the transport sector with electric cars and recharging roads, saying no to a third runway at Heathrow, and bringing forward the 2040 ban on fossil-fuelled cars. It means reversing the regression on funding to insulate the UK’s leaky homes, eliminating our support for fracking and reliance on ‘clean’ gas, and increasing rather than freezing subsidy support for renewables. It means transforming our farming practices to preserve soil health and limit emissions from livestock. And it means reviving scrapped carbon capture and storage projects, particularly for the high-polluting cement and steel industries.
Status: Falling Behind
The UK’s current emissions pledge falls short of the Paris Agreement, and we need to make sure the government has no option but to enshrine a net zero target by 2050 in law later this year. But that’s just the start. The government is projected to make only half of the emissions cuts required by even our 2030 target (57%). What’s more, a sizeable chunk of the reductions we have achieved have come from exporting industries overseas, trading emissions, and transitioning from coal to gas – all short-term hashes rather than long-term solutions. Underachieving against insufficient targets with lazy solutions, the government’s policy efforts don’t cut anything even vaguely resembling the mustard. New target or not, joining the fight for concrete, immediate action is what really matters.
If you are able, please contribute to Plan B’s legal costs, which are solely being financed through crowd funding. Your support to their cause is invaluable and allows those who take a stand to hold the government to account.
If you would like to voice your support for strengthened climate ambition on both emissions targets and policy, you can write to Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, with the following (or indeed any other) message:
Dear Minister Clark,
It is important that the UK heeds the Climate Change Commission’s advice later this year and strengthens the pledge our country has made to the Paris Agreement. But more than that, your department must introduce short-term policies to achieve both the current and any future targets as soon as possible.
Say no to a third runway at Heathrow, bring forward the 2040 ban on fossil-fuelled cars, and provide public funding to the electric car industry. Restart funding to insulate the UK’s homes, end your support for fracking and our reliance on ‘clean’ gas, and increase rather than freeze subsidy support for renewables. Restart funding to insulate the UK’s homes, and revive the carbon capture and storage projects scrapped in 2015.
As Plan B highlights, there is an immense opportunity before you. Act like the climate leaders you claim to be.
Greg’s email address: firstname.lastname@example.org Address: Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET