Climate leadership begins at home – time is running out

09 Nov 2020

As of today (9th November) it is 1600 days since the Brexit referendum and a year until the start of the UNFCCC’s COP 26, hosted by the UK in Glasgow. Given the Government’s current track record, anyone interested in climate change should worry about the UK’s ability to get climate policy done, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, and with such a busy political agenda made all the more challenging by Brexit.

Historically, the UK has been seen by many as a country at the forefront of climate policy.  It introduced the world’s first large scale emissions trading system in 2002, which was the forerunner of the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). The UK  was also one of the first to put in place legislation that bound future administrations to meet mitigation targets – the Climate Change Act. Most recently, it was one of the first to adopt a net zero 2050 target.

UK climate leadership put to the test

However, the UK’s claim to a top spot on the global league table of ambitious climate action will be severely tested in the coming weeks and months.

First: The UK ceases to be a member of the EU ETS on the 1st January, but the Government has still not stated what will replace it and whether it will maintain a domestic emissions trading system or move towards a carbon emissions tax.  This matters, as the UK has shown when it set a carbon floor price, putting a price on carbon that reflects its environmental costs is a key tool for decarbonisation. Whether we have a trading system or a tax will have implications for the political stability of the regime, and for all those involved in the reporting regimes, and the emissions markets and traders. It could well be the case that a new tax, in the context of Covid-19, would not be popular. It also has implications for the devolved administrations, which have different responsibilities for trading systems and taxation.

Furthermore, and in many ways, more importantly, whatever replacement regime the government finally chooses will need to be implemented, but that will take time – of which the UK has little. Indeed, with just 52 days left to devise and implement a new regime, the UK runs the risk of a temporary break in one of its key decarbonisation policies. Hardly the stuff of a world-leading climate change policy.

Second:  The UK, along with Italy, is hosting the UNFCCC COP 26 in November 2021, which is the most important event since the Paris Conference in 2015.  The primary object of the UK’s Presidency is to encourage countries to submit more ambition and revised National Determined Contributions (NDC), that lay out their carbon mitigation plans until 2030 as well as long term targets.  This will potentially set the global pathway for emissions for the next decade.

Reasons for optimism

There is some reason for optimism and momentum is building toward great long-term climate ambition. In September, China announced a plan to be carbon neutral by 2060 closely followed Japan and South Korea announcing 2050 neutrality targets.

The UK and UN are hosting a virtual climate summit on 12th December, the 5th Anniversary of the Paris Agreement as an “an important moment to continue raising climate ambition.” – according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.  However, the UK Government has yet to formally submit any NDC, as it was previously included in the EU’s, and the world will be scrutinising, not only the numbers (the proposed reduction from 1990) but the credibility of the policies and measures to achieve them, including how to price carbon. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change has suggested that this should be 57% below 1990 levels. The EU is expected to call for at least 55% 1990 levels when it finalises it plan in December – the European Parliament has proposed a 60% reduction.

Addressing climate change is a global priority as the Prime Minister affirmed when launching the UK’s presidency of COP 26 in February: ‘as a country and as a society, as a planet, as a species, we must now act’. Today, some 280 days later, the Government must step up its efforts to demonstrate it is committed to credible domestic climate change policy in order to continue to show real international leadership.