Act fast to stop UK carbon emission rebound, climate advisers urge

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The UK is falling behind on its target to cut greenhouse gas emissions and risks a surge in carbon emissions as lockdown eases, the government’s climate advisers warn.

Ministers must act fast if the UK is to avoid a massive rebound in carbon emissions after the coronavirus crisis eases, Lord Deben, chair of the committee on climate change (CCC), which published its progress report to parliament on Thursday, said. By setting up new schemes to insulate homes, raise carbon taxes, switch to electric vehicles and improve broadband, the government could spur a green recovery to create jobs and cut emissions permanently.

The CCC found that the lack of clear leadership and direction from the prime minister was at the heart of the problem, just as the world was looking to the UK as host of the next UN climate summit.

Boris Johnson has chaired only one meeting of the cabinet committee on climate change since taking personal charge of the issue last October, with the government’s statutory advisers urging him to convene the group more often, as a matter of urgency, if the UK is to meet its 2050 net zero carbon target, which is off track.

Chris Stark, chief executive of the CCC said: “Without central and integrated leadership we will fail in our task, and this really does need the prime minister’s attention to make a success of it. It is a poor excuse that [the cabinet committee] has not met more often.”

Action plan for the UK to achieve net zero by 2050

Deben added: “We have to do this as rapidly as possible – this window of opportunity is closing clearly. What we do not want is a lot of good-hearted statements about beginning policies – what we need to do is seize the opportunity.”

Delay in the government’s regulations for housebuilding had already resulted in 1 million new homes that were “not fit for purpose” because they had been built to old inefficient standards, he said. They would all have to be retrofitted for energy efficiency at extra cost.

“That’s what happens if you don’t take these measures,” he said.

The “central role” of the cabinet committee on climate change, which Johnson said last October would spearhead a cross-government push to bring down emissions, is mentioned 10 times in the CCC’s 196-page progress report to parliament, published on Thursday.

The cabinet committee’s one meeting, chaired by Johnson, was in March, the Guardian has established, and a second meeting is planned in the near future. Details are scant as the government has said it does not intend to report publicly on the committee meetings.

“[It] will need to meet more regularly and demonstrate it is driving sustained progress,” the CCC report said.

Insiders told the Guardian that despite the government’s public commitment to net zero carbon emissions, the lack of leadership was severely hampering the UK’s ability to meet its carbon targets and its credibility as host of next year’s UN Cop26 climate summit.

“We are not being given a good lead by the prime minister and this is really undermining our ability to move things on,” said Tom Burke, co-founder of the environment thinktank E3G and a veteran government adviser. “What binds any institution, but especially the government, is leadership, and if you don’t get leadership, then people go off in different directions.”

He called for Johnson to take personal control. “The point of setting up a cabinet committee is to signal the importance of the issue for the government. If you don’t follow up that signal by using the device you created, you tell people you are more interested in the headline than in the outcome.”

Other recommendations in the CCC report include:

  • A national plan to renovate buildings and construct new housing to the highest standards of energy and water efficiency.

  • Bringing forward the phasing out of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2035 to 2032.

  • Raising carbon taxes, including fuel duty, while oil prices are low, to bring in GBP15bn a year for spending on green measures.

The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by about 3.2% last year, but emissions must fall faster over the next 30 years to meet the target of net zero emissions by 2050.

The report sets out 29 milestones for the government to reach by 2030, as well as more than 130 detailed policy recommendations covering each government department. Ministers must respond to the report by 15 October.

A government spokesperson said: “We agree with the CCC that tackling climate change should be at the heart of our economic recovery. We were the first major economy to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and want to ensure the UK has the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.”

Green campaigners called on ministers to act urgently, as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, prepared a statement on the post-coronavirus economic rescue package for early next month. Rosie Rogers, head of green recovery at Greenpeace UK, said: “The likes of energy, efficiency, cycling and saving peatlands are essential, not nice-to-have measures. The CCC have shown the government where they need to put their money, and all eyes are now on the chancellor to make it happen.”

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