Long term net zero target looks set to be tabled next week, but previously banked emissions savings could yet be used
The government today confirmed it could use accounting mechanisms to help it meet legally binding carbon targets, a controversial move that appears to run counter to previous advice from its climate change experts, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).
However, Ministers indicated they only intended to make use of the surplus emissions if changes are made to the carbon accounting rules governing the baseline against which savings are made. The move also comes as further reports emerged suggesting a legally-binding net zero emission target for 2050 is set to be tabled next week, marking a major victory for green campaigners.
In a letter to CCC Chair Lord Deben sent yesterday, acting Energy and Clean Growth Minister Chris Skidmore said the government plans to carry over 88 megatonnes of surplus emissions to call upon to help meet carbon reduction goals.
The letter confirms reports from earlier this week that the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) would likely roll over 88 megatonnes of emissions from previous carbon targets.
Any plan to use the surplus to ease the pressure on future carbon budgets – the UK’s legally binding five-year emissions targets – has already attracted fierce criticism from political opponents and campaigners, who have accused the government of “accounting tricks” that would shift the UK off the lowest cost pathway for meeting its long term emissions goals.
However, in the letter Skidmore insisted ministers only intended to make use of the surplus emissions in exceptional technical circumstances.
In the letter to Lord Deben, Skidmore insisted the emissions carried over would not be used to meet the current Carbon Budget, which sets out the emissions savings needed between 2018 and 2022.
Instead, the surplus would help insulate the government against any “technical change” to the baseline, which could “erroneously indicate” that the government had failed to meet statutory carbon reduction targets, Skidmore said.
“The government will carry over a small proportion of the surplus (88 megatonnes of CO2 – out of the surplus of 384 megatonnes – which is around three per cent of Carbon Budget 2) whilst this work is completed,” Skidmore wrote. “This will be released once it is clear that it will not be needed to address any technical changes in the baseline.”
In response to Skidmore’s letter, Deben said: “We note the government’s acceptance of our advice that the surplus should not be used to reduce the commitments in future carbon budgets”, adding that the CCC will provide recommendations on “handling technical revisions to the emissions baseline in due course”.
The precise details of the circumstances under which the surplus emissions would be released remains opaque. However, the government stressed that it had “no intention” of using surplus emissions for the third carbon budget and would release them once any changes to the baseline are clarified and it becomes clear that additional emissions savings are not needed.
Writing on Twitter, CCC chief executive Chris Stark offered some further insight into the apparent rationale for the move, arguing that it looks like the government is aiming to guard against potentially “quite substantial” changes to the baseline caused by a new approach to measuring peatland emissions, which would make it harder to meet upcoming carbon budgets.
He said CCC advice on the prospective baseline changes would be forthcoming and stressed again that any changes to carbon accounting should not be used to loosen the budgets. “It’s VERY important that future carbon budgets aren’t made any more loose,” he wrote. “We need to get ourselves on a new trajectory to reduce emissions as quickly as possible if we’re to meet carbon budget four and five. And #netzero just makes that doubly important.”
The government is worrying about revisions that we know are planned to our understanding of peatland emissions and the global warming potential of gases. These will have an impact on the baseline – and will probably make it harder to meet carbon budgets.
— Chris Stark (@ChiefExecCCC) June 7, 2019
In a joint statement Norman Lamb, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee and Rachel Reeves, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, expressed disappointment at the government’s decision.
“This goes against the explicit and repeated advice from the independent Committee on Climate Change and the arguments our Committees have made to Ministers,” they said. “It’s time for the government to put to one side short-term political considerations and for it to focus on taking decisions to achieve its long-term commitment of net zero by 2050. If the government is to achieve net zero, the UK’s Carbon Budgets will need to be strengthened, not weakened and the Prime Minister will have to overcome the Chancellor’s foot dragging.”
The CCC has been clear in its opposition to using emissions surpluses from previous budgets to help meet future budgets. Such practices risked increasing the cost of decarbonisation in the long run, CCC chair Lord Deben warned in a letter to the government in February.
“Carrying forward surplus emissions would further loosen carbon budgets, leading to unnecessary costs in meeting the long-term target,” Deben warned at the time.
The government has acknowledged it is currently off track to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which run from the mid-2020s, but has insisted it is working to close the ’emissions gap’ and has policies in the pipeline that should ensure the targets are met.
However, Ministers and the prospective new candidates to become Prime Minister are also under mounting pressure to come forward with additional emissions-cutting policies, after it emerged that Chancellor Philip Hammond has warned Number 10 that any new net zero emission target would have to be accompanied by more ambitious supporting policies during this parliament.
The news comes as the government is reportedly working on changes to the country’s existing climate legislation that could bring a net zero target into law as soon as next week.
In a bid to force the issue Reeves and Lamb announced today that a Bill committing the government to reducing emissions to net zero by 2050 would be presented to Parliament on Tuesday with the backing of their select committees.
The Treasury has warned that meeting the target could cost £1tr through to 2050 and has asked for more time to review the potential costs. But Number 10 has signalled it is committed to delivering a target before the Prime Minister steps down, arguing the projected cost of one to two per cent of GDP by 2050 was previously accepted by Parliament when it passed the Climate Change Actin 2008.
Meanwhile, a host of business groups, including the CBI, have called for the net zero target to be adopted as soon as possible.
Speaking at today’s BusinessGreen Leaders Briefing on Net Zero Energy, Lawrence Slade, chief executive of trade body Energy UK, said the group’s members were hugely supportive of the CCC’s proposed net zero target.
He argued the net zero transition was set to unlock so many economic and investment opportunities that it would be “foolhardy” to delay it.