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At The New Coalface

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is a good sounding board. It is a statutory body, formed under the Climate Change Act to advise the UK and its devolved governments on how we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions and how we should adapt to the change in climate. The committee also reports on progress against the nation’s carbon budgets as we follow a path towards net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The committee is independent, non-departmental and public. It’s also frustrated, as the committee's deputy chairwoman Baroness Brown told BBC News: "There's an increasing sense of frustration that the government knows what it has to do – but it's just not doing it."

Our government’s response is that the UK has cut emissions faster than any other G7 country in recent years, and has set a strong leadership example for other countries to follow. It is true that, thanks to the collapse of coal, overall emission reductions in the UK have averaged six percent annually over the past three years, on par with the fastest reductions of any industrialised country since 1990. However, this national strategy has run its course – all remaining coal plants will be shut down by 2025.

Reduced emissions from energy supplies (down fifty-seven percent from 1990 levels) is undoubtedly good news. However, other sectors have not followed the same path. For example, transport emissions are down only two percent over the same period; emissions reductions from the UK’s twenty-nine million homes have stalled; aviation emissions have doubled since 1990. Future climate change targets will not be met without a fall in transportation emissions of forty-four percent by 2030, the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, and addressing such issues as airport expansions. None will be as easy and painless as shutting down coal plants.

The committee’s report highlights that current national policies and plans are insufficient to meet our future carbon budgets. The government has delivered just one policy action out of twenty-five recommended by the committee in 2018. Of twenty-four indicators showing underlying progress, just seven were on track in 2018. And for context, the required annual rate of emissions reduction for net zero by 2050 is thirty percent higher than has been achieved on average since 1990. In commenting on its findings, committee chairman Lord Deben, added: "The whole thing is really run by the government like a Dad's Army. We can't go on with this ramshackle system."

The gap between what’s being done and what’s needed is even bigger when we consider that the change required is understated. The CCC report is based on the premise that net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is a sufficient target. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that we must dramatically accelerate the transition to climate neutrality. By its own estimates, we have until 2030 – just eleven years from now – to prevent 1.5°C warming.

It is hard to sugar-coat this damning assessment from The Committee on Climate Change. Suffice to say, the afterglow of declining coal has faded and we need to begin the real hard work of changing behaviour patterns and transforming daily habits. The UK is now entering the second phase of decarbonisation, when this change is becoming real. Out of necessity, this new phase will also be more devolved and democratic as local government plays an increasing leadership role, working at the coalface alongside networks of climate action stakeholders.

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