CCC boss: Green and resilient economic recovery can push UK towards net-zero target

EXCLUSIVE: The Committee on Climate Change's (CCC) chief executive Chris Stark believes the UK Government should prioritise a green and resilient economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic that doesn't lock in fossil fuels and puts the nation on an upwards trajectory towards a socially just net-zero transformation.

Stark discusses future carbon budgets, infrastructure strategies, COP 26 and coronavirus recoveries 

Stark discusses future carbon budgets, infrastructure strategies, COP 26 and coronavirus recoveries 

The coronavirus pandemic has dented the global economy, with production grinding to a standstill in some sectors. The outbreak has already had a profound impact on businesses and sectors at different points of the low-carbon transition. Demand for both clean technology and oil and gas is set to decline due to the virus. In fact, just this week, global oil prices dropped into the negative, falling to as low as -$40 per barrel.

As nations look to build reflation packages to stimulate the economy, the CCC’s chief executive Chris Stark believes that the UK will need to build a recovery that is focused on green growth, social parity and improved resiliency.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Stark said: “There is an inherent unfairness in terms of the coronavirus impacts around the world. The UK has a lot of social protection in place, but some nations are seeing astronomical rates in unemployment. This is not the sort of response that we want to see.

“We’re going to have to think much more carefully about a ‘just’ transition and shifting employment from high-carbon to low-carbon practices in a way that protects the people who work in those industries. Net-zero offers that transition, but it is the role of government to help those industries and ensure the transition takes place in a fair and well-managed way.”

The importance of the UK’s own economic recovery is two-fold, at a national and international level. Firstly, the UK Government is set to roll out further building blocks to assist with its net-zero emissions target for 2050, that the CCC advised on. While the CCC has laid out the pathways and technologies required to reach net-zero by 2050 there is a danger that any reflation package locks fossil fuels and high-carbon sectors into the economy, but fails to tie them to the net-zero ambition.

Bailout packages

The 2008-09 financial crisis was built on stimulus packages that led to global emissions rebounding after an initial fall. Fossil fuel firms were able to gain access to subsidies and support packages, but did little to decarbonise their business models.

Stark doesn’t believe the UK Government can afford to “lock-in” fossil fuels as part of an economic recovery and also warned of issuing bailout packages for heavy-carbon sectors without at least exploring how they could be tied to environmental performance.

Campaigning groups have called for any Government bailout of airline companies, for example, to include conditional links for worker rights, fair taxing systems and transparent action plans on climate change. These calls have largely been ignored by policymakers.

“We need to start having discussions about how bailouts for industries look and what strings will be attached,” Stark said. “If we lock in fossil fuel use as we did 12 years ago then it’ll be really hard to reverse from that. We need a sensible reframing of the recovery steps that are compliant with the net-zero world which is where we all need to be. The year ahead looks as important as there has ever been in the climate space.

“Aviation is one of the few sectors we think, in a net-zero world, will still have lingering emissions. Nonetheless, aviation has a role to play in getting to net-zero and if there’s any sort of Government interjection I think it is appropriate to ask what sort of role that industry will play to help us along the way to net-zero. There’s a role for every sector.”

National Infrastructure Strategy

Stark believes that financial markets will price in climate and other forms of risk “more readily” from now on, and start to switch focus to a “slightly longer-term outlook”. As such, the CCC, the Government and the private sector should re-examine approaches to adaptability and resiliency.

The CCC has announced it is amending its advisory reports due for publication over the next 12 months to account for responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Specifically, the CCC’s annual progress report to Parliament in June will feature rebuilding efforts for the economy and production in a way that supports a “just” transition towards net-zero emissions. The body will write to ministers in the coming weeks to kickstart this process.

Stark believes that the UK Government is “better position” than most other countries to stimulate an economic recovery as the nation has been preparing for an infrastructure overhaul as part of the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) which was delayed before the Covid-19 outbreak.

The 30-year strategy outlines how £100bn will be spent over this parliament, and the BBC states that investments will be used to “level up” regions and outline spending projections for transport and digital infrastructure. Electric vehicles (EVs) and renewables infrastructure are mooted to be big aspects of the NIS.

Stark believes some aspects of the NIS may have to be “tailored” to account for improved resiliency and adaptation to respond to future disruptions, many of which could be caused by climate change. He also noted that the £28bn set aside for new road developments could be revisited if people continue to reduce travel and work remotely after the lockdown and spending on digital infrastructure and connectivity may be of better use.

“There are some serious questions on whether spending that much money on a road-building programme is the right thing to do,” Stark added. “We’re all learning that we don’t need to travel as much as we thought. Instead of spending that on roads, we could spend it on telecoms infrastructure.

“If you want patterns of travel to change in a pro-climate way, there are all sorts of things that the Government will have to reorder in its priority list.”

Future carbon budgets

The CCC has confirmed that its advice on the Sixth Carbon Budget, which covers the reduction levels required for the period of 2033-2027 will now be published in December 2020, rather than September. The CCC claims this will allow for extra time to complete the analysis in a way that reflects on the current impacts of the coronavirus.

It will be the first carbon budget to be created since the UK legislated for net-zero, with all other carbon budgets to date having been developed in line with the 2008 Climate Change Act’s original 2050 target of an 80% reduction in GHG emissions, against a 1990 baseline.

According to the latest forecast from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the UK is on course to breach its fourth and fifth carbon budgets.

Stark claimed that the Government’s response to the advice on the future carbon budget was “one of the most difficult things they’ve got to do in climate policy terms”. However, he did add that the CCC had a “good dialogue and relationship” with the Government that has improved over the last few years, so ministers will be better prepared to take the advice into account and sculpt the carbon budget.

COP26

It is likely that any approved carbon budget could act as the UK’s new standalone contribution to the Paris Agreement.

Stark claimed that the UK’s own green recovery would be critical in steering the international climate summit when it does take place at some point in 2021.

“COP26 was important before Covid-19, and I think it’s now more important after it,” he said. “It has an additional significance; not only is there a need for the UK to lead negotiations to get the world on track for the Paris goals, but there’s a need for the UN process itself to prove that multilateralism works in this post-Covid-19 world.”

While COP26 has been pushed back to 2021 because of the coronavirus, the CCC is taking steps to ensure the Government is guided on efforts to mobilise a global climate agreement. The UK Government’s former chief climate negotiator and former lead negotiator for the EU, Pete Betts, has agreed to assist the CCC in this area. Betts is a veteran of 16 UN climate summits and was a lead negotiator for the EU when the Paris Agreement was created in 2015.

One benefit of COP26 being pushed back could be that the US comes back to the climate table. The US remains at an intricate stage of its withdrawal process from the Paris Agreement. President Donald Trump has already confirmed that, if re-elected, he will plough on with his controversial plans to take the US out of the global agreement. Crucially, this withdrawal would take place one day after the 2020 US election on 3 November – and a week before COP26 is set to commence in Glasgow.

If the Democrats were to win that election, however, it is probable that they may want to keep the US in the Paris Agreement, strengthening global efforts to combat the climate emergency as a result. Playing this scenario out: if COP26 was to be delayed to Spring 2021, for example, the US and the UK would then be in a much stronger position to push for increased climate action, together.

“Even in a world where we didn’t have COvid-19, it would’ve have been good to delay COP,” Stark added. “There are better conditions for a successful COP next year. There is more riding on it, of course, but good summits need a good dose of jeopardy to be a success.”

Matt Mace



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