UK told to close climate policy gap or ‘be embarrassed’ in 2020

The British government is off track for its 2050 net zero emissions target, advisers warn, undermining its credibility as likely host of Cop26 UN climate talks

The UK has almost entirely phased out its coal power sector. Rochborough power station in the UK is demoslished in 2012 (Photo: Flickr/shirokazan/CC 2.0)

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The UK government must strengthen its climate policies urgently to avoid being exposed as potential host of next year’s UN summit, its official advisers have warned.

There is a growing gap between Britain’s carbon-cutting ambition and policies, according to a progress report published by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on Wednesday. Meanwhile most sectors are not prepared for the impacts of even modest levels of global warming.

A month after the UK committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the committee said it was on track on only seven out of 24 criteria.

“You have a government that is prepared to take the big and bold step of setting a net zero target by 2050,” said CCC chief executive Chris Stark. But it “has not yet increased ambition to match and has not got a plan for what we know is coming in terms of our changing climate”.

If those plans do not improve in the next 12-18 months, he added, “then I fear the government will be embarrassed when it comes to hosting the Cop [UN climate talks] next year.”

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After striking a deal with rival Italy, British officials are increasingly confident of securing the presidency of Cop26 UN climate negotiations in 2020. It is a key year for the process, with countries due to submit updated climate plans, under pressure – particularly in the industrialised world – to increase ambition.

UK emissions have fallen 18% in the last five years, largely driven by a switch from coal to gas and renewables in electricity generation. “That story will not continue in the future, because we will run out of coal power stations to close,” said Stark.

Emissions from most other sectors are flatlining and the government lacks policies to stay within legally binding carbon budgets from 2023 onwards. Changes to the way emissions are counted make the challenge harder, the report noted.

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The committee recommended embedding net zero policies through government and boosting engagement with the public and business. It welcomed plans by lawmakers to convene a “citizens’ assembly” on how to share the costs of moving to a net zero society.

Several jurisdictions have taken Britain’s climate change law, which set up the CCC to independently advise and monitor government, as a template for their own legislation.

Asked if the government’s failure to take CCC advice showed the watchdog was toothless, chair John Gummer said the UK could face legal action if it continued to ignore its targets.

“The government cannot ignore us,” he said. “There will come a moment… when this will be a justiciable issue – in other words, they can be taken to court.”

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The progress report also identified gaps in government planning for increased flooding, overheating homes and other predicted impacts of global warming.

A handful of sectors, including the rail and water supply networks, have considered the implications of a 2C temperature rise. Others, like farming, are completely unprepared, it said, and all should go further, making contingency plans for 4C warming.

Unlike with emissions cuts, the government is not legally bound to any standard of adaptation to a changing climate. Julia King, who leads the committee’s adaptation work, said she would like to see adaptation given “the same teeth” as mitigation.

Lawmakers on the business, energy and industrial strategy (Beis) committee are due to quiz acting minister Chris Skidmore on the government’s clean growth strategy next Tuesday.

“The government’s recent commitment to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 was welcome but targets are meaningless if not matched by concrete action. This latest CCC report shows the government has failed dismally to back up its rhetoric with ambitious policies which deliver the cuts in emissions the UK needs to achieve,” said Beis committee chair Rachel Reeves MP in a statement.

“The costs of inaction, for our economy, for our environment, and for our health, are too great for the UK government to lag behind. The government needs to get the UK back on track.”

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