UK Government Adopts Ambitious Sixth Carbon Budget

The Climate Change Act 2008 requires the UK government to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas ("GHG") emissions by 2050. Progress toward this commitment is to be driven via a series of five-year carbon budgets. The sixth budget, imposed by the Carbon Budget Order 2021 (June 23, 2021), covers the years 2033-2037. It sets the budget at 965 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. This goal has been highlighted as the world's most ambitious target, seeking GHG emission reductions of 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. It also includes, for the first time, the United Kingdom's share of international aviation and shipping GHG emissions. Government policy and action to support the necessary progress is, however, being suggested as lagging behind these eye-catching headlines.

This latest budget is at the level recommended by the Climate Change Committee ("CCC"). On June 24, 2021, the CCC published a double annual progress report to the UK Parliament on both climate change adaptation and on the progress to net zero. The CCC offers more than 200 climate policy recommendations, covering every part of government. It concludes that the opportunity to implement these recommendations is there if the government acts decisively, but emphasises that to achieve the stated goal, more needs to be done. Indeed, without "credible" policies, the United Kingdom is substantially off course to meet its budget.

To meet sustained emission reductions, the CCC stresses the necessity of government leadership, underpinned by a strong net-zero strategy. In particular:

  • A "Net Zero Test," to measure compatibility with the legal net-zero target, would ensure that all government policy, including planning decisions, is compatible with UK climate targets.
  • An ambitious Heat and Buildings Strategy, benefitting consumers, is urgently needed.
  • Delayed plans on surface transport, aviation, hydrogen, biomass, and food must be delivered.
  • Plans for the power sector, industrial decarbonisation, the North Sea, peat, and energy from waste must be strengthened.
  • The big cross-cutting challenges of public engagement, fair funding, and local delivery must be tackled.

The CCC is also concerned that progress in adapting to climate change is lagging behind the pace of increased risks the United Kingdom faces. Of 34 sectors assessed, only five have shown notable progress since 2019. No sector is scoring highly in lowering its level of risk. The CCC notes that the National Adaptation Programme for England has not developed national preparedness for even a 2º C rise in global temperature, let alone the higher levels possible by the end of the century. The CCC makes 50 recommendations to improve adaptation, including recommending mandatory adaptation reporting for all infrastructure sectors.

The CCC concludes that it is absolutely critical that the new Net Zero Strategy is published prior to the COP26 climate summit, with clear policy plans, backed fully by the Treasury. Along these lines, on July 14, 2021, the UK government announced its transport "greenprint" to decarbonise all modes of domestic transport by 2050. The plan includes consulting on the pledge to end the sale of all new, polluting road vehicles by 2040 and net-zero aviation emissions by 2050. Smart electric vehicle charging, and a commitment to electrify the entire fleet of government cars and vans by 2027, highlight its ambitions. It remains to be seen whether timely policies for other sectors will be issued and how any such policies will be implemented in practice to meet net-zero goals.

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