Six months on from the UN’s landmark 1.5°C report, which urged immediate global action to prevent global warming from rising beyond this dangerous level, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) advised the UK government to go zero-carbon by 2050. The committee’s report asserts that the target constitutes the country’s “highest possible ambition” and that it is not credible to aim for an earlier date.
The report of the CCC came at a time when Parliament had voted for a climate emergency to be declared and when the streets were filled with protesters from Youth Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion.
It was, rightly, seen as a step forward, showing how much more ambitious the UK needed to be if it was to act in accordance with the 1.5 degree climate target (of warming above pre-industrial temperatures).
But, was it enough? Buried in the report were a number of assumptions which others have pointed out, which mean that the CCC report is not all it that it seems. It was, says the critique, far too optimistic on negative emissions technologies and in other ways, and still hiding the truth about necessary change, and the speed and scale of emissions reductions. See:
The view of the authors of the article in The Conversation (cited above) is that creative carbon accounting and an unwillingness to prioritise the planet’s health over economic growth leaves the committee’s target lacking the urgency truly required to combat the climate emergency recently declared by even the government itself.
The authors believe that it is important to be sure of how the CCC defines net zero. If it is based on the UN IPCC’s guidance, the target will include only those carbon emissions which are emitted within the UK’s borders. Using this definition, it would appear that the UK’s carbon emissions have fallen by 30% since 2008. But, as Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg highlighted to parliament, using this figure as a mark of the country’s climate leadership amounts to nothing more than creative carbon accounting, glossing over the UK’s role in emissions that occur outside its borders.
The UK’s imports are three times greater than its exports. the high level of the UK’s imports is a direct consequence of the UK’s consumption habits. But the production and transport of these goods and their related carbon emissions were not counted by the committee because they occur outside our shores. If they were to be counted, the UK’s carbon footprint is 70% higher than the figure used by the CCC in its report.
Also, emissions from international aviation and shipping have long been excluded from the UK’s national targets in favour of international reduction efforts, though the committee is arguing that they cannot be ignored any longer. However, it only recommends their inclusion in the UK’s carbon budget from 2033. The authors of The Conversation article believe that UK aviation emissions must not grow in the next decade if it is to prevent the worst effects of global warming and they state:
“The time to act on aviation and shipping is now.”
They believe that the 2050 target is unambitious and gives a false impression that there is plenty of time to play with. To say that anything earlier than a 2050 target isn’t credible is a grave and dangerous mistake. At current levels of emissions, the world will reach 1.5°C of warming in 12 years. Each year that the UK delays radical action, the necessary yearly emissions cuts to hit net zero become greater, making it ever harder to avoid catastrophic warming. Even with immediate action, the world is still pinning hopes on carbon capture and storage technologies that may never work at scale. Working towards an earlier target with steeper emissions cuts would require initial uncomfortable changes, but would massively lower our reliance on uncertain technologies.
Another report, covered in the Financial Times, suggests that a government agency, UK Export Finance, has been undermining emissions targets by handing out billions in support of foreign fossil fuel projects.
The Public Finance Committee has been especially critical of a decision to support the UK subsidiary of Enka, a Turkish group that had no physical presence in the UK, but had promised to open a procurement office in Birmingham to ensure that its Iraqi projects would have enough UK content to meet UKEF’s criteria for support.