Actions in the next 12 months will determine the shape of the next 30 years
Delay and indecision promises real peril. We need a genuine cross-departmental approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, writes Lord Deben
The Committee on Climate Change is Parliament’s climate watchdog, set up in law to advise on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for the impacts of climate change.
In the recent general election we saw broad political consensus on the need to prioritise action to address climate change – still rare in democracies globally – and we saw every major political party commit to the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions and outline serious policies to put us on the pathway towards it. It was a watershed moment.
The focus on climate change was perhaps unsurprising; 2019 will be remembered by many as the year that the urgency of climate change fully entered the public consciousness.
Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion’s protests drove awareness to new levels. Real-world impacts of rising global temperatures continued to mount, from the burning Amazon, to bushfires in Australia and flooding in the UK. And in June, following the advice of our committee, the UK became the first major economy to commit to a net zero target.
But if 2019 was the year of climate consciousness, 2020 must be the year of climate action.
In July, the committee’s annual progress assessment to Parliament was crystal clear. We said that by the end of 2020, as the UK hosts COP26, the pivotal UN global climate change summit in Glasgow, our credibility rests on demonstrating ambitious new steps to cut greenhouse gases, responding to the urgency of the UK’s new net zero law.
The course of the next 12 months will determine the shape of the next 30 years. Swift, decisive action will put us on the right path; delay and indecision promises real peril.
It can no longer be assumed that only the energy and environment departments will deliver the policies that are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It requires a genuine cross-departmental approach, in collaboration with the devolved assemblies.
Key to this is HM Treasury, which has already taken a lead by launching a comprehensive review of how the costs of the transition to a net zero economy can be funded and distributed fairly. This review will be a key input to the Government’s 2020 Spending Review and Budget, and it will help set the longer-term direction of policies.
If the changes to our economy are to proceed at the rate required, then an appropriate regime for public funding will be needed and the conditions for private investment must be right.
With clear signals from Government, investment can be directed to the right priorities at scale. Net zero can be a tool of economic renewal for the UK economy, but this must also be a just transition; one that is fair and minimises the costs to society, protecting the most vulnerable over the many changes that lie ahead.
“The course of the next 12 months will determine the shape of the next 30 years”
It was widely acknowledged during the election that UK infrastructure holds the key to net zero. Our transport system is the largest source of UK emissions. We need low carbon infrastructure and steps to reduce our nation’s dependence on fossil-fuelled vehicles.
The totemic challenge is to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans. The date must be brought forward from 2040 to 2035 or even earlier, and the investment in the electrical infrastructure for charging electric vehicles must be fast enough to permit this.
Tackling fossil-fuelled emissions from UK homes and workplaces is perhaps the toughest challenge of all. Emissions from buildings actually increased 3% between 2017 and 2018. Improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s building stock and making homes ready for the changing climate is paramount.
In this Parliament we must take the next major step: agreeing a national plan to decarbonise heat, and beginning the journey to phase out fossil fuel use in homes.
In truth, all areas of the economy require urgent action. Even in electricity generation, where great progress to cut emissions has already been made, the challenge is still substantial.
The share of zero carbon electricity generated today stands at a remarkable 50%. It must grow to over 80% by 2030, and 100% by 2050.
In parallel, the committee predicts that electricity generation will need to double as clean electricity replaces fossil fuels to heat our homes and power our transport.
Alongside, we must still develop the capability to capture carbon from our industrial processes – and develop the crucial CO₂ transportation and storage infrastructure to allow it to be stored safely in the North Sea.
We expect these critical new facilities to be developed and commissioned within the life of this Parliament, pointing towards new industries for the UK. The decisions on how best to support these nascent industries are among the most important we now face.
All Whitehall departments have a role to play. Education must move quickly too. We will need a net zero-ready workforce and preparations for delivering new skills in specialist industries such as construction and engineering.
International-focused departments must address the scale of climate risk that the UK faces from climate change impacts overseas, including to international supply chains and trade.
Promoting a change on this scale presents new coordination challenges across government and corresponding challenges for Parliament in its scrutiny. Progress demands leadership at the heart of government, from the prime minister and cabinet.
The Committee on Climate Change will play its part in this year of action. In January, we will launch a new report into UK land use and agriculture, considering the complex and challenging transition required in our use of land to support net zero overall.
There is so much that could be achieved by bringing agriculture and rural communities into the mission. We will make recommendations on policies to reduce emissions from agriculture and move towards lower carbon land use, restoring peatland and boosting tree-planting – often discussed during the election.
Next summer, our annual progress report to Parliament will look at each department in turn to assess how well they are living up to their promises to enact net zero policies. We will not hold back in calling these departments to account.
In September we will present our next major piece of advice to Government, on the next interim target for cutting emissions (the sixth carbon budget) – the first since Parliament enacted the net zero 2050 law.
Our advice will present to Government a pathway to cut emissions through the 2020s and 2030s, towards net zero emissions by 2050. Receiving and accepting our advice will be an essential component of the preparations to host world leaders in Glasgow next year.
Incoming governments always have a long to-do list. I know well the many urgent and pressing issues. But climate change must now move to take priority among them. We simply cannot afford to put off action.
The challenges are daunting, of course, but let us celebrate that we now have solutions to all of them. The conditions are right and the excuses must fall away.
Net zero is now within sight – and the year ahead is our best ever opportunity to demonstrate the UK’s ambition to achieve it. That is leadership on a global scale and politicians of every shade must ensure that we don’t just say it. We have to do it and do it now.
Lord Deben is a Conservative peer and chair of the Committee on Climate Change