Stick to emissions targets regardless of EU membership, UK government told

Fawley Power Station, Cal Shot Castle, UK. [Gillian Thomas/Flickr]

Britain should aim to cut its carbon dioxide output by about half by 2030, whether there is an exit from the European Union or not, according to advice published on Tuesday (13 October) by the Committee on Climate Change.

The advice comes as the government is preparing to negotiate a new worldwide deal among governments on climate change, in two tense weeks of talks this December, in Paris. Any agreement reached there would determine the global response to the threat for decades to come.

The UK is doing no more than other major countries in cutting its carbon emissions by 2030, compared with the standard 1990 baselines, the chief executive of the committee told the Guardian. “This is in line with international commitments,” Matthew Bell said in an interview.

George Osborne, the chancellor, has suggested that the UK should do no more than other countries in combating climate change, as he said it could be a competitive disadvantage to do more.

The UK’s current commitments, however, are also “in line” with comparable nations, according to Bell, suggesting that the UK is not out in front in emissions-cutting efforts.

But he said that further effort would be required from all countries if the talks in Paris are to meet scientific advice to stay within 2C of warming, relative to pre-industrial levels. If other countries were prepared to up their commitments – at Paris or beyond – to meet that target, the UK should also consider doing so, he said.

Recent actions and rhetoric from the government have been interpreted as “anti-green”: sharp reductions in the subsidies for onshore wind and solar power; the scrapping of a target for all new homes to be zero-carbon next year; the scrapping of the government’s flagship assistance programme for householders to insulate their draughty homes, with nothing to replace it.

>>Read: The nine green policies killed off by the Tory government

Next month, the committee will present its formal advice on the government’s actions to meet its carbon targets, including estimates on the lowest-cost pathway to do so. These are likely to include renewable energy and energy efficiency, despite the current government’s clampdown on many forms of both.

Crucially, some politicians in the UK see an exit from the EU as an opportunity to redraw any existing climate commitments. If the UK were to leave the EU, at a referendum to be held in the next two years, the country would in theory no longer be held to the EU’s international commitments on global warming, which will be affirmed in Paris.

The UK negotiates its international actions on climate change as a member of the EU bloc, and its targets are likewise shared as part of the EU bloc. This carries some potential benefits to the UK: for instance, its pre-2020 targets on renewable energy are markedly lower than those of other large member states such as Germany and France, as a result of intense negotiations.

But Bell, head of the statutory body whose official advice to the government must be adhered to or met with legal review, said that the current targets would withstand such a political upheaval.

“These are domestic targets,” he said. “They were domestically set, by a domestic act of parliament.”

Tuesday’s report does not constitute formal advice to parliament, but is part of a package that will be presented to ministers in November, shortly before the Paris talks begin. That package will carry formal weight under the Climate Change Act, and if ministers disagree with it, they will have to take action to have it reviewed by process of law.

Ministers will have the opportunity to review the fifth carbon budget for several months after the Paris negotiations.

However, the scientific advice contained in today’s report, The scientific and international context for the fifth carbon report, is unlikely to be much changed before then. If ministers wish to deviate from the committee’s advice, a judicial review is likely to be called for.


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