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Climate climate Man-Made

The Climate Change Act: the 10-year anniversary

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by: Sharai Hoekema
the climate change act  the 10 year anniversary

Back in 2008, the Climate Change Act was passed as part of the strategy of the United Kingdom to drastically reduce its emission of greenhouse gases. It was quite ambitious, to say the least - with the opening line already clearly stating who is to take care of its execution: "It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the baseline.”

This baseline is 1990, making it a rather significant change. It would, after all, enable the country to transform into a low carbon economy. For this purpose, it allows the ministers to introduce all measures that they deem necessary to reach the set targets. The Act also led to the creation of a Committee on Climate Change, that acts as an advisory body to the government. 

Even more dramatically, there are only two possible outcomes: either the targets are met, or the Government will be taken to court. 

The pledges of the Climate Change Act

Initially, the idea was that a 60% cut in emissions would have to be realised, based on a report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. This report claimed that, if adopted by other countries, a 60% reduction would suffice in reducing the atmospheric carbon dioxide to below 550 parts per million. This number was deemed sufficient for withholding the worst consequences of global warming, that will follow if global temperatures are to rise with more than 2°C.

However, another assessment indicated that even at a level of 550 ppm, the threshold of 2°C would be exceeded. Quite a few environmental organisations and political parties argued that the 60% target would not be sufficient, and instead proposed a greater cut of anywhere between 80% to 100%.

While some might think that this is a far-reaching goal, it should be noted that this does not include emissions from the entire aviation and shipping industry. As these are the largest polluters, the net effect on total emissions would only be somewhere in the range of 35-50%. Even though this does not sound nearly as impressive, it would still be a great first step towards making the world more sustainable.

Making it a reality

We are already ten years underway since the establishment of the Act. This anniversary is a great checkpoint to see how much progress has been made, and check whether the UK is still on track to meet its targets. 

At a first glance, it looks as if everything is going well. The country has been considerate in setting carbon budgets, and with this, effectively encouraged innovation and awareness. Especially the move towards generating more renewable energy is very promising. While it took almost two decades for Britain to build its first 5GW of wind capacity, they realised the latest 5GW in merely two years. A major improvement.

Less than a year ago, an important milestone was reached; after the share of renewable energy skyrocketed to a high of 30% of the energy generation in the country. This does, however, not deny that there is still a long way to go. In 2017, a report indicated that the overall energy consumption still used a whopping 80% of fossil fuel. The share of wind, solar and hydro energy was only 3%. It illustrates the great potential for cutting back emissions.

So yes, the increase in renewables has been remarkable, but it is nowhere near the targets as set forth in the Act and the levels that should be reached in 2050. 

The looming clouds

Alongside the still dominant position of fossil fuels, there are some other clouds that have been cast over this otherwise relatively blue sky. There is a possibility that, in the future, the government will start exploiting flexibilities in the Act to help them meet the set carbon targets. As such, the government could use the fact that the targets were exceeded in previous years and use this to sit back and relax, missing the targets for the next period but justifying this by offsetting it against the earlier overachievement. 

It sounds like a technicality, but this loophole could cause the government to take a backseat instead of pushing the boundaries. The target should be looked at as the bare minimum required, not the end-goal in itself. 

Secondly, recent insights have led to even stricter targets for the reduction that should be achieved if climate change is to be countered effectively. In the Paris Climate Accord, it has been pointed out that, to be on the safe side, global temperatures should not increase with more than 1.5°C, rather than the 2°C quoted before. For this to be a feasible option, the world needs to have a net zero economy by 2050 and the reduction in carbon emissions should be almost double of what will be brought forth by the Climate Change Act.

What is next?

Even though the recommendations of the Paris Climate Accord are not set in stone, and therefore do not render the Act obsolete as of now, it should be noted that predictions are that more should be done than is currently established. Therefore, the successes already achieved should be celebrated, after which they should encourage the government to push even further and find ways to exceed expectations - rather than lean back and pride themselves on compliance.

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