Nick Hurd: Brexit offers the flexibility to strengthen Britain’s decarbonisation commitments

Climate Change Minister Nick Hurd has insisted that Brexit will give the UK the opportunity to look at the low-carbon transition through a "prism of national interests" that could lead to significant economic growth, but only if the Government can overcome multiple "difficult challenges".

Speaking to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee today (10 January), Hurd noted that ongoing negotiations surrounding the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) hold the opportunity to allow the country to strengthen the delivery of key climate targets while enhancing economic prosperity.

The Brexit negotiations allows Britain to re-address key legislative and regulatory frameworks such as the Emissions Trading System (ETS) and the burden sharing agreement, which divides up the EU’s overall emissions reduction targets across Member States.

“There’s a set of very big issues we’ve got to think about in regards to the Brexit negotiations and the re-negotiations of our relationship with the EU,” Hurd told the Committee. “Brexit gives us the flexibility to rethink things through the prism of national interests and gives us the chance to look at things like the ETS and decide whether it is working.

“There are big issues surrounding the energy relationship and a decision needs to be made about whether we bind this country into European negotiations of the Paris Agreement for 2030. This includes a big decision on whether we participate in the ETS and other decisions about rafts of EU-sourced regulation that have a big impact on our carbon reduction plan. These are issues we have to think through as part of the wider conversation about Brexit and the work on the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP).”

The UK officially signed the Paris Agreement last year through successful negotiations with the EU, and the country was expected to reduce emissions as part of a burden-sharing commitment across Member States. With the Agreement ratified during the COP22 negotiations in Marrakesh at the year-end, the UK has taken steps to introduce its own emissions scheme, which all Member States are required to do.

Hurd revealed that the UK was still a “fully-functioning and active member” of EU climate conversations, noting that the outcomes of these talks would matter to the UK “under any circumstances”.

But the decision to leave the EU will give the UK a unique perspective on some of the more questionable climate legislation such as the ETS – which covers around 45% of the EU’s carbon emissions. Critics of the ETS framework have argued that the system is suspect to fluctuations and speculations, although a cap system is in place to reduce emissions by 21% below 2005 levels by 2020.

Alongside the ETS, Hurd also confirmed that a decision will have to be made on the UK’s participation in a burden-sharing agreement, which sets binding annual emissions targets for EU Member States up to 2020. These targets cover emissions from sectors not included under the ETS, including transport, buildings and agriculture. Current sharing agreements have set a 20% reduction for the wealthiest Member States.

UK ambitions

Hurd addressed paricular concerns that Brexit could soften the UK’s level of climate action, suggesting that the 2008 Climate Change Act – which sets the legal framework for the UK government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 against a 1990 baseline – was fully in line with the goals and ambitions of the Paris Agreement.

“The Agreements we’ve entered under the Paris talks are absolutely compatible with our commitments in regards to the Climate Change Act,” the Climate Minister added. “The Fifth Carbon Budget is very ambitious and the Government could easily have flinched, but we pressed on to put it into law,” Hurd said.

“It’s a proof point of our commitment, similar to how we’ve proved that you can reduce your emissions significantly while growing your economy significantly. Delivering our domestic climate purposes at the lowest cost is a key commitment. So is using our influence to make sure others play their part and maximising the economic opportunities for the UK through the decarbonisation process.”

The recent approval of the Fifth Carbon Budget has put the UK on a path to meet the legally-binding carbon reduction targets laid out in the 2008 act, by setting a 57% reduction goal between the period of 2028 and 2032. According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK is currently on track to outperform the Second and Third Carbon Budgets, but off track to meet the Fourth – which covers the period 2023-27 and requires a 50% emissions reduction from 1990 levels.

Heat and transport

Hurd said that the Government would address this performance gap in the forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan, which he claimed would be released by the end of the first quarter this year. While Hurd was tight-lipped on the specifics of the Plan, the Minister did reveal that it would align with Greg Clark’s Industrial Strategy, noting that it would have to reflect key economic trends – one of which is global decarbonisation.

Hurd did confirm that efforts to accelerate the decarbonisation of the heat and transport sectors would appear in the ERP. Currently, the UK is not even halfway towards reaching a 12% target for heat generated from renewables, while the proportion of renewable energy used in transport has fallen from 4.9% to 4.2% over the past year.

Hurd also revealed that electric vehicles (EVs) would provide a bridge between the ERP’s aim to decarbonise certain sectors and the Industrial Strategy’s ideate to modernise infrastructure and systems.

The ERP is likely to include new legislative guidance on controversial shale gas exploration, with Hurd claiming the he is approaching it from an “energy security” point of view. Today, he claimed it would be “irresponsible” not to explore the potential of shale gas, providing it was done in a way that wasn’t detrimental to the environment.

The Minister also suggested during the BEIS Committee session that he wants to be able to “say something” about carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the ERP, which many consider abandoned after a Government decision to axe a £1bn competition in 2015.

“We’re interested in finding a smarter path forward to see whether we can reduce the cost of CCS, which is too high,” he said. “Taxpayers spent a lot of money to achieve not very much. It was the right to cancel the competition, but this could play a very important part in the future.”

Matt Mace

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