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The Energy White Paper may not go far enough to reach climate targets

Rampion Offshore Wind Farm in Brighton, the first wind farm off the UK's south coast, September 2019 | PA Images

Alexandra Goodwin

Alexandra Goodwin

4 min read

Published just after the release Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget, the long awaited Energy White Paper still leaves major gaps in decarbonisation ambitions

This week saw the significantly delayed Energy White Paper finally published, setting out specific steps the Government will take over the next decade to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the whole economy (power, transport, industry and buildings) by 230 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e).

The long wait for it to arrive over the last two years has led Opposition parties and stakeholders to be somewhat unforgiving on any outstanding question marks, despite how comprehensive the document is, especially as the gaps between pledged policy and climate targets continue to widen.

All of the recent announcements have been warmly received by the relevant sectors; however, issues begin to arise when trajectories of policies are placed under a magnifying glass.

The UK’s latest territorial greenhouse gas emissions data from BEIS in March 2020 stated that in 2019, GHGs stood at 435.2 MtCO2e; to reach the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) Sixth Carbon Budget advice, this must decrease by 78% by the mid-2030s, to roughly 95.7 MtCO2e. This means the 230MtCO2e reduction set out in the White Paper doesn’t go nearly far enough. The CCC has also called for the inclusion of aviation and shipping in these numbers –including these areas increases total GHG emissions in 2019 s to 522 MtCO2e, rendering the hill even steeper.

Shadow BEIS secretary  Ed Miliband repeatedly highlighted such shortfalls in his response to Alok Sharma’s Statement to the House on December 14, pointing out the 15-year gap between the CCC’s clear statement that the UK needed to deliver zero-carbon electricity by 2035, and the White Paper’s 2050 ambition for zero-emissions electricity. Miliband also pointed out that on nuclear, there had already been years of consultation on the financial models. Rather than the Paper laying out the Government’s preferred method, it published plans to consult further instead.

The government’s lack of hydrogen strategy in comparison to its EU counterparts has been megaphoned by the gas sector since the White Paper was originally promised. Hydrogen has taken centre stage of the Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan and is touted as a solution to the UK’s decarbonisation, especially across the Sixth Carbon Budget advice. With France committing £8bn and Germany £6bn to their hydrogen strategies, the £240m promised in the White Paper risks the UK falling behind on satisfactory development.Of course, the Hydrogen Strategy promised for Spring 2021 could amend this - nevertheless, time is running out to implement adequate changes to the UK economy in order to reduce emissions enough by the next decade.

On buildings, the White Paper omitted a date or plan for new homes to be built zero carbon, a blow for both the private rented sector, who are currently unsure when to invest in new technologies, and the government who later down the line will need to, expensively, mitigate carbon inevitably locked into the UK’s economy by not acting sooner. 

The government is also under increasing pressure from the CCC and wider stakeholders to include shipping and aviation targets in the UK’s emission totals. As aforementioned, to do so would paint an even bigger aperture between ambition and action. As the next host of the Conference of the Parties (COP26), a commitment from the Government to include shipping and aviation in totals would secure their position as the world’s climate leader – a tenet of the new Global Britain – as they emerge from the end of the Brexit period with a new, shiny, more ambitious Emissions Trading Scheme.

Of course, the  government doesn’t have to accept the advice of the CCC next year when they legislate for the Sixth Budget, however, not to do so would likely result in their own legal binding to net zero carbon by 2050 not being met. In lieu of the White Paper’s timely publication, climate ambitions elsewhere have seemed to surpass the Paper’s proposals, possibly rendering it outdated. The government’s action on emissions thus far is noble, but if they were to accept the Sixth Carbon Budget in 2021, the White Paper may not be the answer to an adequate pathway for decarbonisation.


Alexandra Goodwin is Dods Senior Political Consultant for Energy

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