The UK’s Sixth Carbon Budget report was published by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on 9th December 2020. The carbon budgets were first introduced to the UK under the 2008 Climate Change Act. Each carbon budget provides a 5 year statutory cap on greenhouse gas emissions in order to set out a trajectory for the UK to meet its emissions reduction commitments, with the sixth budget covering the period 2033-2037.

This latest carbon budget is being heralded as ambitious and the ‘toughest yet’ as it considerably steps up UK obligations, increasing the required pace of emissions reductions. In line with the recommendations in the Sixth Carbon Budget report, the Prime Minister announced in December 2020 a commitment to reduce UK emissions by 68% on 1990 levels by 2030, representing a significant jump on the original commitment of a 57%. The CCC recommends that this is set to a 75% reduction by 2035.

The CCC has explored a number of scenario pathways, seeking to stress test each according to many uncertainties. From this, it has developed a ‘Balanced Pathway’, which makes moderate assumptions on behaviour change and technological innovation, whilst ensuring that recommendations can realistically be achieved when accounting for factors such as the speed of technology development and roll out. Although the CCC has taken this balanced approach to ensure that what has been set out is feasible, the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated with well over half the emissions reductions required to 2050 being recommended to take place in the next 15 years.

A summary of the CCC’s recommendations on the Sixth Carbon Budget is provided below:

  • Budget Level – 78% reduction on UK net Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by 2035, relative to 1990 levels.
  • Budget Scope – Encompass all UK GHG emissions, including international aviation and shipping.
  • Domestic Action – Base the target on actual UK emissions without reliance on international carbon credits.
  • Net Zero Strategy – Legislate the Sixth Carbon Budget and detail Net Zero plans and policies in the first half of 2021.
  • Existing Carbon Budgets – Emissions will need to fall more quickly that set out by existing carbon budgets (i.e. the fourth and fifth budgets which cover 2023-27 and 2028-32 respectively) so will require review by the government.

As well as setting out its recommendations for the Sixth Carbon Budget, within the report the CCC also makes recommendations for the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030, which must be communicated to the UN. NDCs sit at the heart of the Paris Agreement and set out the commitments by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The NDC recommendations are summarised as follows:

  • Ambition on Reducing Emissions – in line with the sixth Carbon Budget trajectory, submit an NDC requiring at least a 68% reduction in territorial emissions from 1990 to 2030. This would represent a clear progression on current UK commitments and would be world leading compared to existing NDCs.
  • International Aviation and Shipping – Include clear commitments to act on emissions in these areas which are currently treated separately by the UN.
  • Adaptation – Even if temperature rise is limited to 1.5 degrees C, there will be further impacts from climate change beyond those experienced today, so there is a need to strengthen adaptation plans and policies.
  • International Collaboration – The UK has been a strong contributor to international climate finance, technological development and capacity building and should highlight this in its NDCs.

The report explains that rapid transformation is required across all areas and sectors in order to limit warming, stating “No single solution or single sector can meet the budget alone; action is required across all areas and all sectors, without delay. The 2020s are the crucial decade: with effective action starting now, by 2030 the UK will be firmly on track to Net Zero. A large part of meeting Net Zero is a technological and investment challenge. But it also requires a fundamental response from people: as consumers, workers, homeowners, tenants and landlords, motorists, farmers, citizens and families.”

4 key action areas have been identified in the report to meet the sixth carbon budget:

  • Reducing demand for carbon intensive activities – This covers measures which reduce demand for carbon intensive activity with particular focus on shift in diets away from meat and dairy products, reductions in waste, slower growth in flights and reductions in travel demand; alongside measures to improve efficiency in use of energy in buildings, vehicles and industry.
  • Take up of low carbon solutions – Over half the emissions savings in the balanced pathway set out by the CCC come from take up of low carbon solutions as old higher carbon products are phased out. This includes the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and electric heating solutions, as well as limiting the production of Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) to low carbon models only by 2040. In industry, the use of low carbon electric or hydrogen based solutions activities also need to be rolled out alongside the exploration and development of capture and storage technologies.
  • Expansion of low-carbon energy supplies – Low carbon share of energy supplies needs to increase from 50% to 100% by 2035. The largest contribution will come from offshore wind power. Low-carbon electricity can now be produced more cheaply than high-carbon electricity in the UK and globally. The CCC also sets out recommendations to scale up the use of low carbon hydrogen in areas less suited to electrification such as shipping, and potentially HGVs.
  • Land (and removals) – The 4th cornerstone of the key action areas is the transformation of land use. The report details the need to significantly increase the planting of trees with over 440,000 hectares of mixed woodland being planted to remove CO2 within the scenarios set out, along with both the restoration of peatlands, and the shifting of a large proportion of agricultural land to bioenergy production.

The balanced pathway which is outlined in the report sees the most rapid emissions reductions over the period 2025-2035. Prior to this period progress is slower due to the required scale up of new technologies and markets, and beyond this progress slows as some opportunities will have been exhausted, for example the power sector should reach zero emissions by 2035.

Given the all-encompassing nature of the action required across every sector, industry and activity, the report goes on to identify priorities for each sector of the UK economy. This will support the government in strengthening policy to ensure the required actions are delivered and the budget is met. This extends to surface transport, industry, buildings, electricity generation, low carbon hydrogen development, agriculture and land use, aviation and shipping, waste and F-gases, and CO2 removal strategies.

Following the publishing of the Sixth Carbon Budget report, the UK communicated its new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on 12th December. The Government must next set the Sixth Carbon Budget in law by the end of June 2021, with an urgent need for policies to be set as soon as practicably possible thereafter. The CCC reiterates that whilst the Balanced Pathway set out is achievable, it is highly ambitious and there is no time for delay.

The setting of this ambitious goal comes amid the context of the UK hosting the next UN climate talks in November 2021. In order to influence others and help build the global ambition, the UK commitment and NDC must be world leading and reflective of best practice under the Paris Agreement and the CCC set out to do this.

It should also be noted that even in the relatively short time which has passed since the UK’s Net Zero Carbon target was set into law, a number of economic and social changes have provided a further catalyst for the UK to ramp up its ambition and action in this area. The costs of low carbon technologies have continued to fall, increasing their accessibility; more countries and businesses have pledged their commitments to Net Zero Carbon targets with a raft of others currently working on setting theirs; there has been evidence of strong changes in societal attitudes towards the need to tackle climate change; and the COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken in response to it have significantly altered the economic landscape, with a strong need for economic recovery.

Against this backdrop, the pathway set out promises to deliver a number of benefits in addition to putting the UK firmly on a clear trajectory towards its Net Zero Carbon target. The pathway provides opportunity for a major investment programme which will help support the UK economic recovery following the pandemic, with the costs of investment predicted to be lower than originally expected at less than 1% of GDP. This will help the creation of jobs UK wide and the measures will also bring about a number of health and wellbeing benefits to people, as well as to the environment.

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