Every new year, when I tell myself that I’m going to lose weight, drink less, or (this year) eat less meat, I know that it won’t happen on the basis of willpower alone. If I set rules – tell myself how I’m going to do it – then I’m much more likely actually to achieve something: so-many dry days or meat-free meals a week. If I don’t, it remains little more than a fond hope and best intentions.
This is also true of the UK government’s climate targets. The Climate Change Act is amongst the strongest climate change legislation in the world – and it’s hugely encouraging, as some of the noise from climate-change deniers grows more confident, that this government has signed up to the fifth carbon budget and ratified the Paris Agreement. It signals the best intentions, and comes on the back of significant achievements in deploying renewables (25% of electricity generation) and cutting emissions (down more than a third on 1990).
But the problem with those intentions is that we’re not actually on track to hit our carbon targets beyond the end of this decade – indeed, we might be as much as 25% adrift by 2025. The emissions reduction plan ought to be about how we meet the fifth carbon budget – running from 2028 to 2032. But if we’re that far out on the one before it, then we’re going to be way off by then. So, like the promises I make to myself at the start of the year, I fear for our intentions in the absence of a plan.
Unlike my new year’s resolutions, of course, the government’s commitments under the UK Climate Change Act are legal obligations (I’ve never yet secured a slot for primary legislation for my lifestyle improvements), and have rather more far-reaching implications. This is why we’re getting very anxious as we wait for the government’s emissions reduction plan. We expected it last year, but obviously brexit is consuming a lot of civil service and Ministerial capacity. We then expected it by the end of March, but still nothing. And we’re not the only ones; the plan is just as crucial to businesses in the UK’s growing low carbon sector; they want to know how the government will support them as they conquer the energy mainstream and drive down costs.
But let’s be fair, it’s a complex undertaking – not least the process for government officials in lining up agreement from their colleagues in other departments. The reason we’re worried about it is also, I guess, the reason why it’s taking so long: there really are some huge gaps to be bridged.
Cutting energy and costs in homes
First, we’re making no progress reducing emissions from buildings. Energy efficiency (things like insulating our lofts and walls) offer some of the cheapest and quickest emissions reductions, yet four out of five homes are below the recommended level of efficiency (EPC C) that would deliver on climate targets, keep us warm, and cut our bills. We need the UK Government to up its game and help create a market for energy improvements, using incentives and standards. As for new buildings – making them efficient and low carbon is a no-brainer; yet still we’re building homes that mean future generations will need to have the exact same conversation we’re having now about retrofitting to improve efficiency. But to make a real change, we have to invest as well in low carbon heating – electric heat pumps for homes currently using oil, and district heating in urban areas. This isn’t easy, not least because it involves local authorities as well as national government leadership and investment – but it is crucial.
Next, the electricity sector: for all the phenomenal deployment of renewables, and the commitment to phase out coal by 2025, the job is far from done. Decarbonisation will grind to a halt and stagger over a cliff without clear continued commitment to new clean generation. Alongside the commitment to offshore wind, the UK government still needs to give clarity for investors in other, cheaper, technologies like solar and onshore wind as to whether will provide a way for them to sell their power to the market, and what support there will be for smaller-scale renewables. But it also means clear commitment to robust carbon pricing, which the flagging EU emissions trading system is still failing to deliver. Post-brexit, the UK could potentially lead the way in the UK with a new and stronger carbon market – and underpin it with a decarbonisation target for the electricity sector. Getting all of this right, and continuing to decarbonise power, will be essential if we’re to tap the benefits of cleaner and more efficient electric transport and heating.
Planes, trains and automobiles
And thirdly, transport, where emissions are actually going up! The commitment in the industrial strategy to accelerating the development of electric vehicles is welcome. But the UK government still has a significant job to do to if we’re to phase out conventional crop biofuels, replacing them instead with sustainable waste-based fuels for aviation, shipping and freight. So, knowing that emissions are already going the wrong way, and then announcing a commitment to build a third runway at Heathrow… This drives the proverbial coach and horses – flies an Airbus A380 – through the fifth carbon budget. Expansion in aviation emissions only makes targets harder to reach, and puts more pressure on the other sectors to decarbonise.
All of which is why we’re anxious to see and to influence an ambitious and clear emissions reduction plan. As the millions who took part in WWF’s Earth Hour on 25 March showed, people want action on climate change: two thirds of the public are clear that climate change is happening and is caused by humans; 80% and 73% respectively worry about harm to wildlife and increased flooding as a result.
We need a plan for tackling those problems – a plan for reducing emissions – and we need it now. This is urgent.