UK slow to act on climate change targets, finds report

The UK’s laudable targets and ambitions in relation to climate change risk being undermined by delay and failure to deliver on promises, a major new report has warned.

Fiddlers Ferry powerstation in Warrington,UK/Credit: Getty Images

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has published what is in effect a school report that indicates how, ‘with every month of inaction’, it is becoming harder for the UK to get on track. This has implications for the environment, agriculture and rural living.

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The Climate Change Act of 2008 locked emissions reductions into law and the UK has regularly made high-profile commitments and statements of intent. In April 2021 the UK government set what it declared to be the world’s most ambitious climate change target into law to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels, a measure designed to help the UK achieve net zero by 2050. Other eye-catching targets include an announcement earlier this year that by 2025 all new homes will be banned from installing gas and oil boilers and will instead be heated by low-carbon alternatives; and that new cars and vans powered wholly by petrol and diesel will not be sold in the UK from 2030 (though hybrids will be permitted).

But the CCC’s 2021 Progress Report to Parliament, published in late June, concluded that the government ‘has been too slow to follow these [commitments] with delivery’, adding that ‘this defining year for the UK’s climate credentials has been marred by uncertainty and delay to a host of new climate strategies. Those that have emerged have too often missed the mark.’

Only five of 34 sectors, including commercial fisheries and river and coastal flood alleviation, have shown notable progress in the past two years, according to the CCC.

With regard to freshwater habitats, the report authors found that ‘while general plans to build the resilience of freshwater habitats to climate change are in place, they have had only limited impact on managing pressures on biodiversity to date.’ On the natural environment, the report says ‘The Government needs to set outcome-based, long-term targets for widespread habitat restoration, with statutory interim targets to drive the early action that is needed now to improve resilience.’ Progress in agriculture and land use, such as tree planting, has repeatedly failed to meet the targets.

Among measures required to mitigate climate change and safeguard the wider natural environment, the CCC recommends the restoration of 100% of upland peat by 2045, including a ban on rotational burning. The report also found a need for new means of implementing landscape-scale land use change, such as  afforestation and peatland restoration and to ensure a high take-up of low-carbon farming practices.

More positively, the CCC finds that, in regard to the overarching target of net zero by 2050, ‘Of the 92 recommendations we made in our 2020 progress report, 72 (i.e. over 75%) have been either achieved, partly achieved or are underway’. The latest data from the CCC indicate that, from 1990 to 2019, UK emissions fell by 40%, even as the economy grew by 78%.  UK emissions fell by a record 13% in 2020 to 435 MtCO2e, 48% below 1990 levels. The fall in 2020 was almost entirely due to the impacts of the pandemic, particularly reductions in road and air travel, as well as lower overall energy demands Electricity supply has been the major success story of the past decade and emissions in the sector decreased by 65% over the 10 years to 2019.

In a separate report published earlier in June, Independent assessment of UK climate risk, the CCC identified 61 risks (such as impacts on freshwater environments) and opportunities (for example, longer growing seasons will benefit farmers) but found that more action was needed 34 of these, from the natural environment, our health, our homes, infrastructure to the economy. Current action was only deemed adequate in four cases.

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The CCC is an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 and has a remit to advise the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets.