The Climate Change Act 2008 is the UK’s approach to reducing emissions and preparing for climate change. It set a statutory target to reduce UK Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions by at least 80 percent (against 1990 levels) by 2050. Then in June 2019 by way of secondary legislation the UK became the first major economy in the world to legislate to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared with the previous target of at least 80% reduction from 1990 levels – thereby ending its contribution to global warming by 2050. This change was accomplished simply by substituting ‘100%’ for ‘80%’ in the Act.
‘Net zero’ means the UK’s total emissions are equal to or less than the emissions removed from the environment. Note that a Net Zero target does mean that some emissions can remain if they are offset by removal from the atmosphere and/or by trading in carbon units.
In February 2023 the UK Government created the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero focused on the energy portfolio from the former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It has the following responsibilities:
- delivering security of energy supply
- ensuring properly functioning energy markets
- encouraging greater energy efficiency
- seizing the opportunities of net zero to lead the world in new green industries
The creation of this new department has perhaps recognised that one can’t ignore the need to balance energy security (to ensure the ‘lights don’t go out’) with the rush to reduce green house gases many of which arise from the means to ensure energy security.
The Government’s Strategy to achieve Net Zero
The government’s strategy and policies for achieving the 2050 target was set out in ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener‘ based around a 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution covering ambitions in the following areas, each with target milestones:
- advancing offshore wind
- driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen
- delivering new and advanced nuclear power
- accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles
- green public transport, cycling and walking
- ‘jet zero’ and green ships
- greener buildings
- investing in carbon capture, usage and storage
- protecting our natural environment
- green finance and innovation
The government set out in a white paper how it will put net zero and its effort
to fight climate change at its core, following the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green
This strategy has come under sustained attack from various quarters as being inadequate and even unlawful, as was found in July 2022 in a case brought by the Good Law Project, Joanna Wheatley, Client Earth and Friends of the Earth. The High Court ruled that the government’s Net Zero Strategy ‘lacked any quantitative assessment of the contributions expected to be made by individual policies to reductions in emissions’.
Advising and monitoring progress
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) was established under the Climate Change Act 2008 as an independent, statutory body with the purpose to advise the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets and to report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change.
A Framework Document describes the broad framework within which the organisation operates and covers the role of both the CCC and an Adaptation Committee (AC), their governance and accountability, management and financial responsibilities.
The First Statutory Report on Progress – June 2022
Every year, before the end of June, the CCC has to report to Parliament on their assessment of the Government’s performance in combatting climate change. On 29 June 2022 the CCC produced a statutory report noting that current programmes will not deliver Net Zero.
In particular it stated that (apart from the move to electric vehicles) tangible progress is lagging the policy ambition. Policy gaps must be closed, notably on land use – potentially enabled by new legislation on the environment – and on energy efficiency of buildings. Strategies and detailed plans are still needed for waste management, land use and agriculture, and achieving full electricity decarbonisation by 2035.
Also given the range of delivery risks highlighted in their report and the lack of progress seen in many areas to date, the Net Zero Strategy is not fully credible until the Government develops and begins to implement contingency plans.
Rising costs of living due in great part to the energy crisis has caused the government to double down on Net Zero rather than align the two. They state here remains an urgent need for equivalent action to reduce demand for fossil fuels to reduce emissions and limit energy bills.
Most stingingly it notes that The Net Zero Strategy contains warm words on many of the cross-cutting enablers of the transition, but there has been little tangible progress. Further they state ‘We are yet to see a public engagement strategy from the Government, three years since Net Zero was placed in legislation. The Treasury has not set out how the full range of costs and benefits of the transition will be shared fairly. It remains unclear how central, devolved and local government will operate coherently towards the Net Zero goal. The Government must take a proactive approach to tackling bottlenecks, such as skills gaps and planning consent for infrastructure, and integrate adaptation into action to reduce emissions’.
Delivery of emissions reductions is noted in Table 1 below from page 21 of the report.
A summary of the report’s recommendations are shown in the table below.
CCC Monitoring Framework
The UK is required by the Climate Change Act to reach Net Zero emissions by 2050 and meet a series of five-year carbon budgets over this period, on which the CCC advises.
A carbon budget is a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK over a five-year period. Budgets must be set at least 12 years in advance to allow policymakers, businesses and individuals enough time to prepare. The CCC advises on the appropriate level of each carbon budget. The CCC has established a monitoring framework which set out climate targets. All six carbon budgets have been put into law and run up to 2037. The CCC recommend that the UK sets a Sixth Carbon Budget to require a reduction in UK greenhouse gas emissions of 78% by 2035 relative to 1990 and a 63% reduction from 2019 as outlined in their report ‘ The Sixth Carbon Budget The UK’s path to Net Zero‘.
The UK is currently in the third carbon budget period (2018 to 2022).
The CCC monitors a series of sectors which are broadly in line with those used by Government in its Net Zero strategy, but with some notable exceptions.
From Autumn 2022 the CCC will produce a distilled summary of their core progress report outputs, in the form of a web-based dashboard. This aims to provide an up-to-date snapshot of Government progress in reducing emissions. This will be updated more regularly than their annual progress reports, for example after major Government strategies. The dashboard aims to provide an accessible and concise summary of the issues, without being overly simplistic or reductive.
Official Measures of the UK’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions
How progress towards Net Zero is measured and the differences between official measures of UK GHG emissions is explained in an article published by the Office of National Statistics (OTS).
Decarbonised energy system
A reliable, resilient, decarbonised electricity system is needed to deliver emissions reductions in line with the path to Net Zero, while ensuring a reliable and resilient electricity supply and substantially reducing the UK’s dependence on imported fossil fuels. A CCC report published in March 2023 believes that this can be delivered by 2035.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading
Some businesses have a greater capacity to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses than others. This difference in ability means that those that can make significant emissions reductions have the opportunity to sell those savings to others.
Carbon emissions trading is a type of policy that allows companies to buy or sell government-granted allotments of carbon dioxide output. The UK was within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) but established its own scheme on 1 January 2021 and provides guidance on participation.
The UK ETS runs for ten “scheme years” beginning in 2021. Operators of certain industrial installations and certain aircraft operators are required to monitor, report on, and surrender “allowances” equivalent to, their greenhouse gas emissions in each scheme year.
Problems with Emissions (Carbon) Trading
The main problems that may arise are:
- Leakage: This occurs when emissions are simply transferred from one region to another, rather than being reduced overall
- Fraud: This can occur when companies or individuals cheat the system by claiming to have reduced emissions when they have not.
- Greenwashing: This is when companies use carbon trading to make themselves look more environmentally friendly than they actually are.
- Exclusion of vulnerable groups: This can occur when carbon trading schemes do not take into account the needs of vulnerable groups, such as indigenous peoples or people living in poverty.
An academic study of global carbon markets that is well worth reading was produced by the University of Sussex and identified four problems:
- Homogeneity problems arise from the non-linear nature of climate change and sensitivity of emissions, which complicate attempts to calculate carbon offsets.
- Justice problems involve issues of dependency and the concentration of wealth among the rich, meaning carbon trading often counteracts attempts to reduce poverty.
- Gaming problems include pressures to promote high-volume, least-cost projects and the
consequences of emissions leakage.
- Information problems encompass transaction costs related to carbon trading and market participation and the comparatively weak institutional capacity of project evaluators
All these problems can undermine the effectiveness of carbon trading schemes and make them less likely to achieve their goals.
Carbon trading schemes can be made more effective by:
- Improved monitoring and enforcement: This can help to reduce leakage and fraud.
- More transparency: This can help to prevent greenwashing.
- Better understanding of the needs of vulnerable groups: This can help to ensure that they are not excluded from carbon trading schemes.