The UK’s annual progress on emissions reduction shows a decrease since before the pandemic; however, the CCC’s chairman is worried that commitments are not matching delivery
Reporting to parliament on progress in reducing emissions
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) released their annual report on UK progress in reducing emissions on the 29th of June. Their report functions as a progress checker for the CCC’s 6th carbon budget highlighting a 4% rise in emissions in 2021 compared to 2020; this rise is attributed to the reopening of the economy following the coronavirus pandemic.[i] Whilst a primarily worrying statistic, the CCC go on to alleviate discontent at a resurgence in greenhouse gas emissions by reiterating that UK emissions are still 10% below pre-pandemic levels in 2019 and 47% below the 1990 benchmark.[ii]
Historical emissions and GDP in the UK
Of particular note within the reporting in the broadest term (overall emissions reductions) is that the UK’s economic rebound in GDP has shown a higher percentage increase than the rebound in emissions. This emphasises that even with the shocks of the pandemic, economic recovery from COVID-19 does not have to be at the cost of emissions reduction.
Sector-specific reporting on emissions reduction highlights areas primarily responsible for the rebound in emissions in 2021.
Sector-specific changes in UK emissions 2019-2021
Key areas responsible for the rebound are surface transport and electricity supply, both of which saw a significant drop during lockdowns. Aviation, which saw a huge 59% drop in emissions, has not seen a return to pre-pandemic levels; this has had a positive effect on the reduction in overall emissions, especially as the rolling average of flights in the UK only returned to pre-pandemic levels in May of this year.[iii]
Where is progress coming from?
CCC Indicators point to a considerable improvement in electric vehicle sales while electric van sales are trailing. However, after the lockdown limitations were lifted, car travel recovered considerably more swiftly and thoroughly than did public transportation, and van and heavy goods vehicle (HGV) traffic has since reached levels above those of the pre-pandemic period. Electric vehicle charging infrastructure development is increasing but arguably at an insufficient pace.[iv]
Primary indication for the CCC regarding the rollout of offshore wind energy demonstrates a strong trend toward emissions reduction, but they note that analysis of the energy security strategy is incomplete and may affect projections.[v]
Rates of advancement in energy efficiency are still at inadequate levels, as they have been for the past ten years. The government wants to increase the number of heat pump installations from roughly 54,000 in 2021 to at least 600,000 per year by the end of the 2020s. To monitor whether this is developing as anticipated, supply chain build-up indicators will be required. Still, there are currently data shortcomings that make this difficult for the CCC to evaluate.
Due to the inadequate availability of pertinent data across the many sub-sectors, which severely restricts monitoring and assessment of policy implementation, development in the decarbonisation of manufacturing is difficult to ascertain. The CCC suggest that the government must examine industry decarbonisation data collecting and annual reporting, invest in it, and start a reform process.
Agriculture & Land Use
CCC data indicates that the productivity improvements required to decarbonise the agricultural industry and low carbon farming are not progressing at the necessary pace. Deliverables for land-use modifications that are required to lessen greenhouse gas emissions from degraded peatlands and to encourage the planting of trees to sequester carbon have not yet been met. Although the consumption of meat is declining at a promising rate, there are no strategies in place to take advantage of this trend.
Overall gains and gaps
The CCC summarise its indicators in key sectors below.
Looking to the long term
Whilst the annual report demonstrates positive progress towards the UK’s 2050 net zero target, there is concern that it is not matching the promises that have been made by the government. Lord Deben, chair of the CCC, credited the government for their ambitious commitments and how they supported a successful COP in 2021.[vi] This praise was largely confined to the foreword in the official report at the launch of the report; in his speech, Deben painted a more negative picture. The CCC chair offered the example of the much-contested new coal mine proposed for Cumbria; in a recent PMQs, the Prime Minister said that “it makes no sense to be importing coal”.[vii] This has been taken as a hint that the government will advance these plans, much to the distaste of the CCC and Lord Deben, who described the project as “absolutely indefensible”.[viii] On the ramping up of coal use in established settings, Lord Deben conceded that with the invasion of Ukraine and the associated gas crisis, it was an acceptable short-term compromise. The project seemed to exemplify Deben’s wider issues with the current government net zero strategy; he is quoted as saying the project would “create another example of Britain saying one thing and doing another”.[ix] This sentiment was alluded to in his foreword, where he said that the commitments would only be effective if “the world also knows we will keep our word”.[x]
From commitment to delivery
The concerns raised by Lord Deben mirror those often seen in the private sector; accusations of greenwashing plague many large businesses’ strategies for climate change; such accusations have been addressed by the UK government themselves with the green taxonomy group.[xi] In this same vein, it is arguable that there should be more checks and balances in place to regulate claims made by governments around the world to ensure that commitments turn into tangible progress. Whilst the Paris Agreement is touted as legally binding, which could lead you to believe that it would function as such an enforcement, there are no penalties, fees or embargoes for parties that breach its terms.[xii] The CCC in the UK and annual reports such as that being discussed here also play a role in holding the government to account for promises made; however, there is still a large gap in publicity from when the claims are made to when the delivery is lacking.
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