Will the UK reach its carbon budget targets with the Clean Growth Strategy?

The Government's long-awaited Clean Growth Strategy details more than 50 initiatives to decarbonise the UK economy in line with the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, but does the ambition have enough quantifiable targets in place to deliver?

The much-anticipated Clean Growth Strategy certainly doesn’t lack ambition. Green groups from WWF to Greenpeace have welcomed that strategy and acknowledged its ambition, but some are still to be convinced that it will actually deliver on its promises.

The Government is packing the Strategy with multi-billion-pound investments across core pillars of innovation, business and industrial efficiency, domestic improvements, transport, energy and natural resources.

The strategy sets out how the Government intends to meet the fifth carbon budget, which seeks to limit the UK’s annual emissions to 57% below 1990 levels by the year 2032 – and subsequently covers the fourth carbon budget, spanning 2023-2027.

These carbon budgets set the pathway as legally binding five-year periods to reach an eventual emissions reduction of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 set out under the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act.

Both the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the Energy Institute have warned that the UK will miss out on its climate targets unless significant improvements are made to decarbonise well-documented problem areas such as heat and transport.

While a £2.5bn investment into low-carbon innovation, a £1bn investment into zero-emission vehicles and a £3.6bn investment into the energy performance of homes is a welcome step in the right direction, the UK Government has given itself some wriggle room for projected shortfalls against the fifth carbon budget.

Flexible approach

In her speech at the launch of the strategy on Thursday (12 October), climate change minister Claire Perry addressed one of the main concerns of the strategy, which is that it is a strategy and a not a plan.

The name of this decarbonisation roadmap has switch from the emissions reduction plan, to the clean growth plan, before a final tweak was made to rename it to a strategy. This highlights that the document isn’t as detailed or fully-formed as it could be, to allow for “flexibility”.

According to Perry, only 30% of the policies listed in the strategy have actually had their emissions savings accounted for. The Government is apparently willing to lean on the “over delivery” on the current carbon budget projections to help plug any gaps that may appear in the future.

“Some of the estimates we have for our delivery of carbon savings from the policies and proposals in the plan today are very well advanced, and we have included carbon savings from about 30% of the new proposals today,” Perry said.

“Should we have to, and with the consent of the Committee on Climate Change, we can use flexibilities. My intention is that we do not have to use them. Because we have over-delivered, and will over-deliver so substantially on current projections, up to carbon budget 3, more than enough will have been built up in terms of flexibilities to cover carbon budget 4 with more left over.”

The strategy itself notes that “there is currently sufficient projected surplus available to carry forward to meet the fourth carbon budget and some of the fifth carbon budget”, and that international carbon credits can also be purchased to meet future budgets, although these can only be used 18 months in advance of the relevant budget.

The strategy also explains that the Government can increase the carbon budget in one period in order to reduce or “tighten” the following budget. This “borrowing” act is limited to 1% of the following carbon budget.

Perry claimed that the adoption of new technologies – a dedicated sector deal will be scheduled to add to offshore wind capacity – will see the UK “comfortably exceed these budgets”, but others are less convinced.

Detailed analysis from Carbon Brief suggests that the quantifiable aspects of the strategy will create a 51% reduction in emissions, still short of the 57% target of the fifth carbon budget. In fact, the strategy emphasises that “current projections are subject to significant uncertainty”.

A ‘legal failure’

While the strategy can be modified, the targets it has to meet are legally binding. Envrionmental law firm ClientEarth challenged the UK Government to publish the delayed strategy back in April and also won its High Court case against the UK Government over the failure of ministers to tackle illegal air quality levels across the country.

Following the publication of the strategy, ClientEarth claimed that “good intentions are no longer good enough” and that the commitments made were a “clear breach” of the Climate Change Act and “a legal failure”.

ClientEarth lawyer Jonathan Church said: “The UK government is still in breach of the Climate Change Act. The UK is on course to miss its 2023-2027 emissions reductions targets by 116MtCO2e – equivalent to more than the Philippines’ emissions in a whole year – and the Clean Growth Strategy does not fix this.

“For too long the government has been undermining policy stability and failing to plan for the future. Now, we need a firm commitment to say how the UK will decarbonise. Good intentions are no longer good enough.”

Church did welcome the announcement that the Government will publish annual monitoring scorecards of its progress, as well as set up a “Clean Growth Inter-Ministerial Group” made of MPs across different departments. It will be the first time in five years that this type of group will monitor progress.

The CCC will formally assess the strategy in early 2018, but a statement from the committee’s chair, Lord Deben, suggests that while they welcome the potential of plan, the CCC is against the use of the “flexibility” that the Government is examining.

“New policies included in the strategy will begin to close the significant gap between existing policies and what is required to meet the carbon budgets,” Lord Deben said. “We welcome the new thinking and ambition. We also recognise that the Government has identified areas where it will aim to do more and acknowledges there is work to be done to develop effective new policies. This work will need to progress quickly in order to meet the legal obligations in the Climate Change Act and to realise the Government’s ambition to build a world-leading low-carbon economy.

“We note that the Clean Growth Strategy suggests that ‘flexibilities’ in the Climate Change Act could be used to meet the carbon budgets in place of domestic action. This should not be the plan. The clear intention of the UK’s fourth and fifth carbon budgets is that they are delivered through domestic action to keep the UK on the lowest cost path to the 2050 target to reduce emissions by at least 80% compared to 1990 levels. That should be the goal, without the use of accounting flexibilities or reliance on international carbon credits.”

Matt Mace

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