Where are we at with the UK’s climate commitments?
It is hard to predict what 2021 will be shaped by, but it is undoubtable that the impact of COP26 at the end of this year will be significant. The very present realities of the climate crisis remain stark – the impact of Fiji’s latest cyclone in December a clear indicator. Towards the end of last year, we saw the UK Government make various announcements regarding their commitments to climate action, at a time when they should have been chairing a review of the Paris Agreement during the original COP26 dates. So, where are we up to with the UK’s commitments to climate action? Here are some of the headlines.
UK Nationally Determined Contribution increased to at least 68% of carbon emissions cut by 2030
The UK Government announced their increased target in December, raising their goal for 2030 to a 68% reduction on 1990 levels, from their previous target on 57%. This target, following advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)*, is a significant increase, and is in line with the Government’s targets to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is the toughest target set by any major economy so far.
The Government also took important action at their December 2020 summit by denying a platform to countries that have not set significant targets, including Brazil, Australia, Russia and Indonesia. Ahead of 2021’s COP26 summit, this sent clear signals about expectations.
The target could have gone further, with research by Imperial College London and WWF suggesting a cut of 72% was economically viable. It is also important to remember that whilst the UK Government has set these targets, they are yet to fully meet the previous targets on the course to reach net-zero by 2050.
The UK won’t use carbon credits to reach their net-zero targets
The Government also agreed to abide by the advice of the CCC to achieve the target without using ‘offsets’. ‘Offsets’, or carbon credits, represent the amount of carbon dioxide reduced by measures taken, such as replacing fossil fuels with renewable electricity or reforestation overseas. They are often used to balance out the remaining carbon emissions produced when reductions do not meet targets.
This is a significant commitment from the Government and a win for our Churches and other campaigners, who feared that the government would lean heavily on offsets in reaching their target rather than achieving a ‘true’ net-zero, jeopardising long term impact.
The target won’t include aviation and shipping
Emissions from aviation and shipping have not been included in the UK’s updated commitments. These areas have historically been omitted from climate negotiations due to their complicated nature. However, they represent large and increasing proportions of UK emissions, and for real progress to be made must be included and measured on our journey to net-zero.
The Government committed to stop funding overseas fossil fuel projects
The Government also made the significant commitment to end financing for oil and gas projects overseas. The measure means that the funding, mostly provided through UK Export Finance, will be cut significantly sometime this year. The Government have come under criticism in the past for a bias towards funding fossil fuel projects, primarily in developing countries.
The government did not set out a target date for this action and there is still a window for new projects to be rushed through before the end of the consultation period on 8th February.
The 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution
Before the announcement of the UK’s NDCs, the Government outlined their ‘10 point plan for a green industrial revolution’, a self-declared plan for “Building back better, supporting green jobs, and accelerating our path to net zero”. The plan proposes to create and support up to 250,000 British jobs in efforts to propel green industry, including in energy, transport, nature and innovative technologies. Significant markers included wind, hydrogen and nuclear power investment; bringing the end of sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans forward by 10 years to 2030; a commitment to plant 30,000 hectares of trees every year, and a focus on making the City of London the global centre of green finance.
However, the plan contained a concerning reliance on new technologies, particularly in carbon capture and storage, which are at present undefined and still under development. The focus on hydrogen power also raised some concerns from campaigners, due to the environmental viability of carbon fuel production and use.
These announcements represent significant movement from the UK Government on plans to reach net-zero and respond to the climate crisis. However, there is still a way to go to create a just and fair plan for climate justice, which would enable everyone globally to flourish. As we look forward to this crucial year in the lead up to COP26, there are a few key things to remember:
- The Government can enhance their NDC at any time. Whilst COP26, and the review of the Paris Agreement this year, are key milestones, each government is free to make changes at any stage. The UK Government could still improve their 2050 net-zero target, which many have warned is not ambitious enough.
- Frontloading action is essential – It is not just what targets the government set to reach net-zero that are important, but how they reach them. Crucially, the majority of carbon emission cuts must be made at the outset of target periods, rather than rushed through at the end, and should be reflected in the Carbon Budgets set by the government. The Government have given indications that they have recognised this need to frontload targets, particularly in responding to advice from the CCC. But over-reliance on carbon capture and storage would appear to be unsafe as it risks making subsequent carbon budgets unachievable.
- Our COVID recovery must be green – The finance and social investment presented through the country’s recovery from COVID-19 must play a central role in our journey to net-zero. This level of investment in social protection and infrastructure change creates opportunities to embed green industry, practice and technology within communities across the country. This investment must be genuine rather than tokenistic, and relies on Government’s recognition of the value of investment now in response to our already apparent and visible changing climate. The amount of funding already being distributed and potentially available as part of the covid recovery is likely to far outweigh commitments already made to climate response, and could increase the potential for action dramatically.
- The UK will continue to play an important leadership role – This year, the UK will not only host COP26 in November, but will also host the G7, take part in the G20, and will also convene a meeting on Climate Finance in 2021. The UK will continue to have a role to play in leading by example, and creating a space for just and fair climate action to take place.
- Global solidarity in a green recovery is crucial – As we highlight the UK’s action on climate, it is essential to remember that this is not a domestic issue, but a global one. To achieve a just and fair response to the climate crisis, we must continue to ask challenging questions about the impact of our commitments on other countries, especially those with fewer resources. If the UK Government’s behaviour through engagement with vaccination programmes or the most recent spending review and cuts to international aid are anything to go by, the commitment to a truly global climate response does not look optimistic. But as ever, change is still possible. Engaging in conversations about loss and damage responses, overseas finance and development and other key areas should be of paramount important.
Throughout this year, JPIT will continue to work with our churches to help us all play our role in achieving climate justice. In particular, we are supporting Climate Sunday, the UK’s largest initiative to mobilise churches ahead of COP26. Find out more and sign up here: https://www.climatesunday.org/.
The Committee on Climate Change are an independent body established in 2008 to advise the government on tackling climate change. The Committee produces reports to advise the government on the necessary steps to reach ‘Carbon Budgets’ – the amount of reduction needed to reach net-zero by 2050 – and monitors progress.