As the UK makes an ambitious commitment to cutting GHG emissions to almost zero by 2050, our climate change consultant Katherine Cooke discusses what this means for LMICs
The United Kingdom has become first major country to propose cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, after 197 countries promised to do so within the Paris Climate Agreement. While this is great news, achieving this will not be without difficulties.
The UK already has strong policies in place through the Climate change Act, which sees reducing emissions by 40% from 1990 levels, and the Government has previously committed to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. Adopting a net zero target for 2050 will require secondary legislation, amending the existing 80% goal to 100%. The Act gives ministers the power to draft such legislation, which would be subject only to affirmative votes in both houses of parliament.
Figures show the Government is likely to miss its existing climate targets from the late 2020s onwards. In its recent report, the Committee on Climate Change says policies must be scaled up to meet this new challenge. This will mean most sectors reducing their emissions close to zero, without relying on offsetting or the mass removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.
What needs to happen?
Climate change experts have expressed concerns that the announced phase-out is coming too late to effectively protect our planet, and questioned how doable reaching this target - suggested in May this year - really is.
To reach net zero target, the UK would have to avoid or offset all emissions from homes, transport, and industry. In practice this means decarbonising all heating, banning petrol and diesel cars, boosting clean electricity production and access to it, and converting agricultural land to tree planting.
In a net zero UK, the electrification of sectors such as transport and heating would result in a doubling of electricity demand. Under the committee’s projections, all of this power would need to be produced by low-carbon sources, which must quadruple their supply by 2050. Shifting to low-carbon farming practices, such as better soil and livestock management, would help cut emissions, but it won’t have enough impact on its own.
The committee notes that while people can take immediate action to improve their diets or shift from driving cars to walking and cycling, all of these measures will require a degree of Government input. The committee expects that the cost of achieving zero carbon economy would fall within existing spending plans, however, some are estimating the cost to be too intense and larger than estimated 1% to 2% of GDP by 2050.
At the same time, this presents a huge economic opportunity for leading the global shift to greener, cleaner economy which is at the heart of the UK’s modern industrial strategy. We must ensure this ambitious transition doesn’t negatively impact the most vulnerable – and the Government will have a clear role in ensuring a just transition for those working in changing sectors, and that costs are borne by those most able to pay.
Global perspective: challenging road ahead
It is important to consider this target from a global perspective, taking into account low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) across Africa and Southeast Asia. As LMICs improve their economic development and increase access to energy supply for their populations, their carbon emission footprint grows as well. With worsening climate extremes, it is important to ensure countries and people worldwide are resilient to shocks, with policies in place that support future growth.
The UK has historically been among the biggest emitters of CO2 in the atmosphere today. The UK does very little manufacturing in-country, meaning that it is outsourcing carbon emissions to other countries where policies are less stringent.
This reaffirms the principle that countries have common, but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) to mitigate climate change. From a moral and political standpoint, CBDR is sound. Rich countries – loosely speaking, those in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – benefited disproportionately from the run-away fossil fuel consumption that powered economic growth over the last two centuries. The burden of addressing the resultant issue of climate change should not fall on poorer countries that are yet to reap the same benefits. The challenge, however, is that CBDR is becoming increasingly difficult to square with atmospheric imperatives.
Facilitating knowledge exchange
The UK’s commitment to reaching net zero is a positive sign – however, it is important to channel this drive globally, and boost progress towards achieving international commitments of keeping emissions well below 2°C and to pursue a 1.5°C target.
The challenges of the Paris Climate Agreement require a greater ambition from the UK Government and other countries worldwide. The 2018 Emissions Gap Report showed that global emissions have reached historic levels, with the current pace of national action being insufficient to meet the agreed targets. In many contexts, the policy environment is incoherent and inadequate in the degree to which it reflects the NDC commitments of a country, and similarly commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The UK’s Partnering for Accelerated Climate Transitions (UK PACT) programme represents an exciting new development not only for the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, but also for the UK as a whole. Drawing on its world-class expertise in green finance and technology, the UK aims to leverage its own progress in reducing emissions to support others in achieving their NDC goals.
For UK PACT to be effective, it requires strong learning and accountability systems to feedback lessons and improve programme design and delivery. With an extensive track record of supporting and delivering monitoring and evaluations, we are supporting the monitoring, evaluation, and learning activities of the programme.