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Government Advised to Amend the Climate Change Act to Require Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050


The Committee on Climate Change ("CCC") – the independent body required by the Climate Change Act 2000 and the Infrastructure Act 2015 to give scientific-based policy advice to the government – has today advised in a report ("the Net-Zero Report") that the current emissions target in the Climate Change Act should be amended. The CCC reported that the UK can achieve net-zero greenhouse gas ("GHG") emissions by 2050 – so not just net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, but all greenhouse gasses, including methane.

Net-zero does not mean the UK stops producing all GHG emissions by 2050, as aviation, agriculture and some industry will continue to emit beyond that date. However those residual emissions will be balanced out by carbon capture and storage and by afforestation in the UK (not by any international offsetting or international carbon trading, which are only seen as contingency measures).

The CCC stated this "necessary, feasible and cost-effective" net-zero target should be set in legislation "as soon as possible – and before the end of 2019". The target can be "legislated as a 100% reduction in [GHG] from 1990 and should cover all sectors of the economy, including international aviation and shipping".

The CCC notes that net-zero will only be achieved by 2050 "with a strengthening of policy to deliver emission reductions across all levels and departments of government" and it suggests a number of policy changes. The new target will also require government to support the cost of change, although the CCC has calculated that the revised higher target can be achieved within the cost to government that was envisaged in 2000 would be needed for the current lower targets – ie an annual resource of up to 1-2% of GDP to 2050.

What Does that Mean for Planning, Infrastructure and Waste?
No doubt a number of policy initiatives will flow from net-zero by 2050, but some of the headlines recommended in the Net-Zero Report are:

1. Heating in buildings – new homes should not be connected to the gas grid from 2025. Technologies such as heat pumps, hybrid heat pumps and district heating in conjunction with hydrogen will be rolled out, alongside a big push on energy efficiency. The CCC recommends government financial support for insulating the current housing stock; switching from natural gas to hydrogen and installing heat pumps to replace gas boilers across the existing housing stock, with large-scale deployment of these measures before 2030.

2. Natural gas – it looks like the "bridging" role for natural gas has diminished significantly, if not disappeared. The main justification for new natural gas extraction is for electricity generation, for use in heating and cooking and for industry. The Net-Zero Report addresses each of these, and nowhere is a bridging role for gas retained. Instead the CCC recommends moves to renewable energy for electricity generation; to electricity and/or hydrogen for heating and cooking and to hydrogen for industry, with government support for some of that cost. This weighs against granting planning permission for new natural gas extraction, whether by convention or unconventional means.

3. National Infrastructure – a big push will be needed to develop the infrastructure to support net-zero emissions by 2050. This includes:
• electric car charging and hydrogen fuel infrastructure (with sales of petrol and diesel cars recommended to end by 2030). The CCC points out that currently there is available sufficient material (eg for batteries) to allow for the requisite increase in sales of electric and ultra-low emission vehicles;
• 75GW of offshore renewables, including repowering current offshore wind with larger turbines and increasing offshore turbines to 7,500 (from the current 2,000);
• infrastructure developments to support carbon capture and storage technology (a key part of achieving net-zero GHG emissions) and hydrogen roll-out.

4. Waste – biodegradable waste streams should not be sent to landfill after 2025, requiring new regulation and enforcement with supporting actions through the waste chain, for example mandatory separation of remaining waste.

New carbon budgets?
The Net-Zero Report does not revise the current carbon budgets set in the Climate Change Act 2000. However, the CCC states that the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which were based on a previous less ambitious emissions targets, are now "likely to be too loose." It recommends that the Government aims to out-perform the legislated budgets (which is a tall order, given we are currently not on track to meet either budget). The CCC will also consider whether to tighten the fourth and fifth carbon budgets as part of its advice on the sixth carbon budget, due in 2020.

What has happened elsewhere?
The Net- Zero Report encourages the UK to be a leader in setting a net-zero target, not just because of the economic benefits that it is envisaged will result, but also because equity demands it. The UK has large cumulative historic emissions – despite making up only 1% of the global population, 2-3% of human induced global warming to date has resulted from GHG emissions in the UK. However, the UK will not be the first county to legislate a net-zero target. Denmark has already legislated a net-zero target by 2050, while Sweden and California have legislated to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. Norway has gone even further and entered into a binding agreement to reach net-zero by 2030. France, the European Union and New Zealand are currently considering enacting commitments to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

What can you do?
If you are interested in knowing what actions individuals can take to reduce their emissions, have a look at page 35 of the Executive Summary of the Report. It sets out what we can each do in the way we travel, in our homes, in our workplaces and in what we eat and buy in order to reduce carbon footprints and contribute to the UK's net-zero goal.

Estelle Dehon is a member of Cornerstone Barristers' Planning and Environmental practices. She has expertise in dealing with renewable energy schemes and in challenging fracking and coal applications.