The UK is doing better than many countries and has taken welcome steps in the right direction with some ambitious-sounding targets. But the UK is heading worryingly off track even using the Government’s own figures. The Government’s independent adviser, the Climate Change Committee, warns that there has been ‘very little action, very little delivery’, and that ‘it’s hard to discern any comprehensive strategy’. What’s more, even if we deliver on our plans, they fall far short of what’s required to limit warming to 1.5°C.
UN scientists have written an entire report to explain the dangers of going beyond 1.5°C of warming. Effects include an increase in droughts, flooding, tropical cyclones and forest fires; sea levels continuing to rise by metres; an increase in species loss and extinction; coral reefs declining by more than 99%; reduced food availability; and new viruses becoming much more common.
The world is looking to the UK for leadership in its role as the president of the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow - a role which continues until late 2022 when we hand over to the next president. By passing the CEE Bill and committing to follow the science, the UK could lead by example, encouraging other nations to follow. Failure to respond to the many warnings from the Government’s own advisors risks offers a convenient excuse to countries like China and India to continue building coal power stations.
Climate change is complex and there are a number of major problems with current government policy, all of which would be addressed by the CEE Bill:
Our 2050 net zero legislation falls far short of what’s needed:
1) It is based on a mere 50%+ chance of limiting global heating to 1.5ºC. These are terrible odds. The CEE Bill would have us work to the safer 67%+ chance pathway provided by the UN experts, the IPCC.
UN experts told the world in 2018 that we must not add more than another 420 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere for a ‘greater than 67% chance’ of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5ºC. This is our carbon budget. But UK legislation is based on a weaker ‘greater than 50% chance’ of success. We don’t think a 50:50 gamble on our children’s future is good enough. The CEE Bill would work to the IPCC’s 67%+ carbon budget. We would prefer even higher odds of success, but humanity has delayed responding to climate change for so long that ‘greater than 66%’ is arguably now the best we can do. (For more on the global carbon budget, see the question on the net zero target date.)
2) It assumes that other countries will cut emissions as quickly as we do. But we know that is just not realistic because populations and living standards are set to increase in continents like Africa. Developed, wealthy nations like ours must cut emissions faster to compensate. MORE
Regarding the UK’s 2050 net zero plan, the Climate Change Committee states:
‘If replicated across the world, and coupled with ambitious near-term reductions in emissions, it would deliver a greater than 50% chance of limiting the temperature increase to 1.5°C.‘
Yet we know that even if less developed continents like Africa reduce emissions per person, expected population growth along with industrial development will cause overall emissions to rise, not fall. So in order for the world to cut emissions fast enough to stay within its carbon budget, more developed countries like ours will need to cut emissions faster than the average to compensate - like it or not.
3) Leading British climate scientist Kevin Anderson warns that our net zero legislation was never enough to meet our Paris Agreement aim to limit warming to 1.5°C. He explains that the Climate Change Committee held back on their recommendations, offering only what they judged would be politically achievable.
Anderson finds that the UK plans to burn around 2.4 times more than our share of the global carbon budget per person. Rather than report the unvarnished scientific advice, the CCC moderated its recommendations based on how rapid a pace of change it believed was politically acceptable. Regarding its 2050 net zero plan, the CCC states:
‘It would constitute the UK's 'highest possible ambition', as called for by Article 4 of the Paris Agreement. The Committee do not currently consider it credible to aim to reach net-zero emissions earlier than 2050.’
This stance was understandable before 2020, but covid has shown us that our society is capable of radical change in the face of an emergency. There are no prizes for trying when it comes to climate change.
What’s more, the CCC has taken no account of the UK’s historical responsibilities. As the first into the industrial revolution, the UK is one of the world’s largest contributors to atmospheric CO2 levels (5th in the world). Poor countries understandably believe that those who caused climate change should be doing the most to sort it out. By signing the Paris Agreement, the UK has already agreed to the principle that those bearing more responsibility for atmospheric pollution must cut their emissions faster. Yet we have entirely ignored this commitment in practice.
The fact that our plans don’t stack up seriously undermines the UK’s credibility as president of the COP26 UN climate talks this November. There is a need for realism and honesty. We believe the CCC should be asked to provide the Government, and the public, with the full unvarnished scientific advice - rather than building in failure from the start. And just like with covid, we would like to see the top CCC science advisors briefing the public directly on climate change at number 10 Downing Street.
4) It is now out of date. The science has moved on since our targets were set in 2018, with the impacts of global heating looking ever more serious. This calls for more rapid action. MORE
As we learn more about climate change, the prognosis is worsening. Here are just a few examples:
- Warming is closer to 1.5°C than thought in 2018 - Met Office Dec 2020
- Plants’ ability to absorb human-caused CO2 may halve within 20 years due to heating and drying, leading to a tipping point expected to accelerate warming - Northern Arizona University Jan 2021
- The Gulf Stream ocean current is weakening, threatening more extreme weather in Europe and the US. Circulation has already slowed by a huge 15%, and is heading ultimately for a dangerous tipping point – Potsdam Feb 2021
- It turns out that industrial fishing’s method of dragging heavy bars across the ocean floor releases more CO2 than air travel – Time Mar 2021
- A warning that chemicals & microplastics in waste water from sewage works, combined with ocean acidification from increased CO2 levels, could threaten a marine ecosystem collapse in just 20 years, with up to 90% of marine life at risk - GOES Foundation Jun 2021
We aren’t even keeping pace with the plan
1) The UK’s net zero by 2050 legislation is based on 2018 scientific advice that we could keep burning fossil fuels until 2050 only if we made rapid cuts in emissions right away. But those cuts were not made, which means we must now reach net zero sooner to compensate. MORE
The IPCC told the world in 2018 that we must not add more than another 420 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere for a greater than 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. That’s our global carbon budget, and each country must work to its share of that budget. The UK failed to cut emissions as advised in 2018, so we have burned through our carbon budget a lot more quickly than we should have. That means our carbon budget will no longer stretch until 2050, and so we must reach net zero sooner to avoid exceeding 1.5°C of warming. If we do not adjust our plans, other countries like China will use this as an excuse to avoid cutting emissions - particularly since the UK is supposed to be leading the world as host of the COP26 UN climate talks this November.
2) The UK is predicted to stray way off track even against our now inadequate targets, both according to the Government’s own forecasts and to Climate Action Tracker which assesses every country's performance on climate. MORE
- The Government’s own projections show emissions reductions stalling and heading way off track from its own (now inadequate) targets. Note that the UK still does not include emissions caused in the manufacture of the products made for us overseas. Neither do we yet include international aviation or shipping - although aviation and shipping will be included from 2033. Largely because we have moved so much of our manufacturing overseas, once we add these missing elements, our total carbon footprint has fallen by only 19% since 1990 - not nearly 50% as sometimes claimed.
International science organisation Climate Action Tracker, which assesses each country's performance on climate, rates the UK’s policies as “insufficient” and on track for 3ºC of warming.
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