UK must cut emissions ‘78% by 2035’ to be on course for net-zero goal

Article Top AdTop of article ad here

For the first time, the government’s climate advisers have proposed a legally binding “carbon budget” that is in line with the national target of “net-zero” emissions by 2050, which was first set last year.

More specifically, the CCC has now set a target for the five-year period 2033-37, which is known as the “sixth carbon budget”.

The report’s scope represents the degree to which the UK’s ambition to tackle climate change has scaled up recently. Just 18 months ago, when the national target was still set at an 80% reduction, the same level of emissions cuts were expected to take twice as long.

It comes as the UK – which will host the COP26 UN climate talks next year – aims to establish itself as an international climate leader, following an ambitious new “68% by 2030” commitment under the Paris Agreement and prime minister Boris Johnson’s new “10-point plan” for achieving net-zero.

However, with the country set to miss its upcoming fourth and fifth carbon budgets, the government’s own figures show current plans still fall “a long way short” of what is required, the CCC says.

Here, Carbon Brief draws out the key points from the CCC’s new guidance – made up of nearly 1,000 pages across three reports – which covers the sixth carbon budget advice and, more widely, the net-zero pathway it has mapped out for achieving a fully decarbonised economy by 2050.

What is the ‘sixth carbon budget’?

The Climate Change Act, originally established in 2008, requires the UK government to set carbon budgets to act as “stepping stones” towards the 2050 emissions target.

These budgets are caps on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted in the UK across a five-year period. So far, five carbon budgets have been put into law.

In the new report, the committee recommends that the sixth carbon budget, which will run from 2033 to 2037, should be set at 965m tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e), equating to, on average, 193MtCO2e annually. In 2019, annual emissions stood at 522MtCO2e.

As the first carbon budget advice to emerge since the UK set a net-zero goal last year, it marks a critical point for the country’s trajectory towards addressing climate change.

Lord Deben, who chairs the CCC, has described it as “the most comprehensive advice we have ever produced”, while CCC chief executive Chris Stark told a press conference the legally binding goal is “the really important target that will shape UK emissions over the next 30 years”.

It comes only days after the government announced a new “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) for 2030 – its pledge for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, following advice from the CCC.

The NDC aims for an “at least 68%” reduction in emissions by the end of the decade, compared to the roughly 57% reduction currently set out in the fifth carbon budget over the same period.

The committee is clear that its guidance, both on the new domestic climate budget and the international NDC, is informed by the same net-zero analysis. It describes its advice as “fair” and “compatible with global efforts to limit warming to 1.5C”.

Achieving the sixth carbon budget will be a significant undertaking, requiring “almost all new purchases and investments are zero-carbon by around 2030”, widespread behaviour changes and rapid deployment of emissions removal technologies, the CCC says.

According to the CCC, the 2030s will need to be a period of particularly dramatic drops in emissions as high-carbon technologies, such as petrol and diesel cars and fossil fuel heating, are phased out.

Taking its lead from the UK’s recent climate assembly, which saw citizens offer their views on achieving net-zero emissions, the committee has tried to ensure societal fairness and prioritise “reductions where known solutions exist”.

Crucially, unlike previous budgets, the CCC says this one should incorporate the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions.

Until now, carbon budgets have not included emissions from these high-polluting sectors, but have allowed “headroom” for them by setting lower targets for other sectors.

Nevertheless, the ability of the government to include emissions from planes and ships in carbon budgets, if it chooses to, has always been enshrined in the Climate Change Act.

In its new advice, the CCC states that the existing approach is unsustainable, highlighting the need to apply pressure to these industries, as well as their non-CO2 environmental impacts which are not covered by carbon budgets.

UN convention means the NDC does not include these emissions. However, the CCC says the UK must make “clear commitments” in its NDC to act on them regardless.

Despite talk of ambitious future commitments, the CCC itself notes that while the UK will likely meet its third carbon budget, which ends in 2022, it is “off track” for the next two.

The chart below shows the new sixth carbon budget and the UK’s progress on its existing carbon budgets. As indicated by the blue line, current government projections show the nation is not on track to achieve its fourth or fifth carbon budgets and is far from the net-zero trajectory set by the CCC.

(The first and second carbon budgets were met, but the “historical emissions” line on the chart below includes emissions from international aviation and shipping, as well as forthcoming revisions to greenhouse gas inventories, which pushes the trajectory outside these budgets.)

UK greenhouse gas emissions, government projections (blue) and net-zero pathways with (red) and without (pink) international aviation and shipping, millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Legislated carbon budgets are shown as grey columns. The black historical emissions line includes updated greenhouse gas inventory values and international aviation and shipping emissions, based on CCC analysis.The chart is different from previous versions produced by Carbon Brief as the baseline emissions have been adjusted upwards to include international aviation and shipping, as well as the forthcoming changes to UK greenhouse gas inventories which will apply to upcoming carbon budgets. These values are based on CCC analysis and have been added to government emissions projections from 2019 to give an estimate for the coming years. The CCC suggests the gap between the BEIS projections and its own are likely to be due to estimates of emissions from wastes and fossil fuel supply. Additionally, unlike previous versions, this chart does not include a line indicating “net carbon account” as the CCC advises future budgets should be based on actual emissions. Source: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) emissions data and projections, CCC figures and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart made by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

The “policy gap” between the UK’s current trajectory and where it needs to be to arrive at net-zero has not gone unnoticed.

recent analysis of Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan by the consultancy Cambridge Econometrics, which also contributed cost analysis to the CCC guidance, found that it “does not align” with the longer term strategy.

Similarly, in its advice the CCC notes that while the 10-point plan included “a number of welcome measures…gaps remain”.

progress report published by the committee in June documenting the government’s progress towards its climate targets stated that just two of 31 key policy milestones had been met over the past year.

The Climate Change Act requires the government by law to develop policies and proposals that “enable” its carbon budgets to be met and the CCC is meant to advise on this.

The committee highlights a number of policies in the works, including the long-awaited energy white paper, the building and heat strategy and a hydrogen strategy. It calls on the government to bring these policies forward “as soon as possible”.

“We have begun to see the consultations, policies and strategies that show that the government is taking the net-zero policy challenge seriously,” the report states.

Later sections of this article examine the sectoral recommendations made by the CCC in order to set a course for net-zero and achieve the sixth carbon budget.

The CCC’s report includes specific advice for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which together cover a fifth of UK emissions. It notes that nearly 60% all the required abatement in these nations is in sectors where key powers are partially or mostly devolved.

Following this advice, the government is required to legislate the carbon budget by the end of June 2021.

In a year that will see the UK take up the presidency of both the COP26 climate summit and the G7, the CCC emphasises the importance of a strong new carbon budget to demonstrate leadership.

“Our influence in the wider world rests ultimately on strong domestic ambition,” the report states.

What are the issues with existing budgets and ‘hot air’?

A combination of factors including Brexit, changes to the way greenhouse gas emissions are assessed and the inclusion of international aviation and shipping have added complications to the way the UK’s carbon budgets are calculated and accounted for.

These issues are important because they will define whether or not the budgets are met, as well as whether they are applying meaningful pressure to cut emissions for years to come.

Previous carbon budgets have been set on the basis that the UK is a member of the EU and participates in the EU emissions trading system (ETS).

Instead of the country’s actual emissions, the budgets have been based on the UK’s “net carbon account”. This is the sum of all the emissions allowances the country receives from the ETS for sectors such as power, heavy industry and domestic aviation, plus emissions not covered by the trading scheme.

As a result of this accounting quirk and the fact the ETS allowances are fixed independently of real-world emissions, the UK’s net carbon account is significantly higher than the emissions actually produced in the country. (The difference can be seen in this chart.)

Leaving the EU and the ETS means the net carbon account would no longer make sense. As a result, the new advice recommends the sixth budget is set on the basis of actual emissions.

Dr Stephen Smith at the University of Oxford, who previously led both the government and the CCC’s climate science teams, tells Carbon Brief that he would also expect existing carbon budgets to be “modified accordingly” if the UK is outside the ETS.

In a letter on the implications of Brexit written in 2016, the CCC wrote that accounting of carbon budgets would indeed need to change if the UK left the ETS and such action would likely “require an adjustment to the budget”.

It currently remains unclear what interaction, if any, the UK will have with the ETS in the future. However, the CCC does not recommend modifying any existing budgets in its report.

Mike Thompson, director of analysis at the CCC, tells Carbon Brief that even if there is a new trading scheme linked to the EU, a new cap would simply be set in line with actual emissions:

“We can stop worrying about the net carbon account in the future. Everything we are proposing is about actual emissions.”

The report states that the “net” approach was “confusing and did not drive action in all areas”.

Thompson notes that while actual emissions figures are currently lower than the net carbon account, more accounting changes mean they are due to increase to similar levels over the next few years.

Full story: