Climate change: The great acceleration

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

In climate change, the word of the week seems to be ‘acceleration’.

Accelerating the cutting of carbon emissions is what the UK government needs to do in order to meet its next set of climate change targets, according to the official advisors the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).


The new report by the CCC, chaired by Lord Deben, is a response to the Clean Growth Strategy. Image: Leanne Bouvet

And it’s what all governments need to do in order to fulfil their Paris Agreement pledge of attempting to keep global warming below 1.5 Celsius. This at least is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is due to say in its landmark report due out towards the end of the year, according to reports this week on a leaked draft.

Legal fail

To the British end of things first. The CCC has just given its official response to the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, published in October. The Strategy’s legal function is to explain how the Government proposes to meet the target of bringing UK carbon emissions in the period 2028-2032 (the fifth carbon budget period) 57% below their 1990 level.

Ccc Carbon Budget Gaps After Cgs

Gaps in carbon budgets remain after the publication of the Clean Growth Strategy. Image: Committee on Climate Change

As I wrote a few months ago, for all that it marks a remarkable progression in the Government’s rhetoric on climate change, the Clean Growth Strategy fails in that legal job – in fact, it admits that there is a policymaking deficit.

So it’s not surprising to see the CCC picking that up. It highlights six areas where the government needs to accelerate progress with new measures:

  • cutting energy waste in buildings
  • low-carbon heat in homes, offices and industry
  • surface transport
  • electricity generation
  • agriculture and land use
  • aviation.

Now – this probably isn’t a surprising list. But it is a challenging one, for a number of reasons that are mostly political.

For example… the last time a Conservative-led government gathered the political capital to launch a serious new home energy efficiency policy, what emerged was the Green Deal… yup, ‘nuff said. Assembling the same degree of political capital any time soon won’t be easy. And there is the Grenfell Tower disaster to factor into the politics of insulation, too.

On low-carbon heat, while there are sensible things that can be done, at some point the government is going to have to make a nationwide strategic decision, certainly for urban areas. To pick a winner. And that’s something that may not sit easily within this Government’s philosophy.  

And on aviation, there’s that troublesome new runway for Heathrow Airport…

Tonic triad    

Nevertheless… the Committee says that new policies need to be put in place now. So, what are the options? 

Delabole Wind Farm By Good Energy

Supporting onshore wind could be a quick win for the Government. Image: Good Energy, creative commons licence

Here are three that are politically feasible, impactful and achievable – and all could be introduced well within a year, probably within six months if the government gets on with it:

  1. Zero-Carbon Homes. For nine years until 2015, the building industry had been preparing for the moment when all new homes would have to produce no net carbon emissions. Then, at the very last moment, George Osborne scrapped it - otherwise, it would be in place now. Well – all that preparatory work is still on the shelves and Osborne is now out of government, so – why not just do it?
  2. Re-booting onshore wind. This is now the cheapest form of electricity generation to build in the UK. It doesn’t need subsidising, but the majority of developers need a form of support like a fixed-price contract to bring down the cost of capital. Where there’s local backing for onshore wind, why not provide that support?
  3. Cutting company car tax for electric cars. People using company cars pay a proportion of the car’s value in tax – the proportion depending on the car’s emissions. From April 2020, for electric cars, it’ll be just 2% (compared with 17% for a normal-sized petrol model). Right now, though, it’s 9% and rising. Yep – talk about a perverse incentive. If the government wants, it can bring in the 2% rate this April instead. A jump in electric fleet car sales would hike demand for charging points – and ensure a big batch of second-hand EVs entering the private sale market in two years’ time.

Such a set of new policies won’t obviate the need for serious action on energy efficiency of existing homes, heating, aviation and agriculture… but it will buy a little time.

Absolute zero    

However… judging by reports on the IPCC’s draft carried by Reuters and Agence France-Presse (AFP), even countries which, like the UK, have made serious dents in their carbon emissions will need to accelerate in the near future.

Reuters takes the angle that the IPCC suggests meeting the 1.5ºC target is probably unachievable, while AFP suggests it’s achievable but tough. The optimistic and pessimistic sides of the same coin.

There are many interesting snippets in the two articles: 

  • ‘negative emissions’ (sucking carbon dioxide from the air) will be needed to give any chance of hitting the target (and I’ve written recently on how a lot of this might be done using nature)
  • there are no ‘historic precedents’ for the scale of the energy transition required
  • meat-eating might need to fall
  • at 2ºC of global warming, sea level rise is likely to continue, whereas at 1.5ºC it would not.

But perhaps the most interesting is this from AFP: ‘By 2050 [for 1.5ºC], carbon dioxide emissions would need to fall to "net" zero, meaning that any CO2 released into the air would have to be offset’.

Step right up    

Currently, very few nations have a ‘net zero’ target. Sweden recently enacted one, with the deadline of 2045. As Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom pledged that the UK would introduce one, but the subscript suggested it would be a decade or two after 2050.

So, if the final version of the IPCC report contains this line (and it ought to stay, logically, given that the underlying science won’t change), a lot of countries – including the UK – are going to have to do some thinking about whether their current climate change objectives are any longer commensurate with the scale of the problem.

For the British government, the domestic and the international are very much linked. Ministers, right up to Theresa May herself, say the UK will continue as a climate change leader internationally. Which, as the ‘squeaky-bum time’ of Brexit looms, is likely to be increasingly important in persuading sceptical developing nations that the UK still wants to be their friend.

But you can’t claim to be an international leader while falling behind at home. That’s not a good look.

Quite some acceleration in store, then, as 2018 gets going. Should be a scorcher.