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UK must not water down carbon budgets warns committee

October 8th, 2013

The UK government’s carbon budgets – and its whole approach to tackling climate change – has come under fire from its own Environmental Audit Committee.

In a report published today, the committee stresses that “policy-makers must listen” to warnings from climate scientists.

It also calls for the setting of a 2030 decarbonisation target now and not in 2016, as currently set out under the government’s Energy Bill.

The report comes after the committee examined whether the emissions restrictions in existing carbon budgets are “still valid as an appropriate UK contribution to tackling climate change”.

The resounding conclusion from the committee is that they are not.

The government is required under the Climate Change Act 2008 to set a series of five-year carbon budgets to restrict cumulative carbon emissions over the coming decades to safe levels, reducing emissions by at least 34 per cent by 2020 and by at least 80 per cent by 2050 – both against a 1990 baseline.

The committee found that the UK's existing carbon budgets represent the minimum level of emissions reduction required to avoid a global 2 degrees temperature rise – the threshold widely accepted as a dangerous level.

Chair of the committee, Joan Walley, said: “Some commentators are intent on spinning recent developments in climate science to suggest we can relax our efforts to cut carbon, in the mistaken belief that this would be better for our economy.

"Given that emissions are currently not falling fast enough to prevent a dangerous destabilisation of the global climate in the coming decades, it would be incredibly short-sighted to slacken our carbon budgets now."

She said that the UK's leading climate scientists “are saying loud and clear that there is no scientific case for watering down our long term emissions reduction targets” and added that “policy-makers must listen”.

The report says that Britain’s current (2008-2012) and second (2013-2017) carbon budgets will be “easily met because of the recession”. But it states that the UK is not on track to meet the third (2018-22) and fourth budgets (2023-2027), because not enough progress is being made in decarbonising transport, buildings and heat production.

The report warns that arrangements for managing and reporting progress against carbon budgets have not been working properly. The government's Carbon Plan – which sets milestones for five key government departments to cut carbon – is out of date. “Quarterly progress reports against milestones have not been published as promised and current departmental business plans are not aligned with the plan.”

Walley added: "The government's current carbon plan seems to have been cobbled together merely to meet the legal requirement under the Climate Change Act. We want to see this become a working document that is fully aligned with departmental business plans with meaningful milestones measured on a quarterly basis and an oversight board that is properly empowered to hold departments to account.”

She said that the government “should be introducing innovative policies now to ensure that Britain is well on the way to going green by the middle of the 2020s”.

For this to happen, she said ministers “need to show much more vision now on how we can cut waste, improve our public transport and insulate more homes and businesses from rising fossil fuel costs. If we leave these changes for another ten years it will become much more expensive to meet our climate change targets and we will be left behind by successful green countries like Germany.”

On the issue of a 2030 decarbonisation target, or lack of – which has been the subject of much debate this year – the committee urges the government to get on and set one now.

The report goes on to explain that the carbon budgets are made up of a traded sector element, achieved through the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) covering power generation and heavy industries, and a non-traded sector element covering road transport, agriculture, buildings, waste, achieved through UK domestic policies.

“The current low-carbon price in the EU ETS – the result of the economic downturn of recent years and over-allocation of emissions permits – means that that scheme will not deliver the emissions reductions envisaged when the fourth carbon budget was set,” the committee said.

“Without any tightening of the EU ETS, increased pressure will therefore be placed on the non-traded sector, which will have to produce further emissions reductions to cover the emerging gap left by the traded sector.”

The report calls on the government to take three actions: Commit to not-loosening the fourth carbon budget; Identify when it will come up with key policy initiatives to bridge this gap and reduce emissions in the non-traded sector in the fourth carbon budget; and state how it plans to strengthen the EU ETS in conjunction with the European Commission.

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