Britain told not to relax despite 'fluke' climate progress

UK beats 'carbon budget' by 15 per cent but is warned against easing targets

The UK's transport emissions fell less than hoped as motorists switched to larger vehicles, scientists said. PA
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Britain has beaten a climate target by 15 per cent – but it is no time to relax, ministers have been told.

The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions were comfortably within its “carbon budget” in the five years to 2022.

The budget is a cap on how much CO2 the UK can produce without falling behind in the race to net zero by 2050.

However, Britain’s climate change committee warned ministers not to treat the unused carbon budget as extra leeway in years to come.

In a letter to Graham Stuart, the minister in charge of net zero, it said the 15 per cent surplus was down to “predominantly external factors”.

These included lower transport emissions and reduced economic activity during the Covid-19 pandemic, it said.

“The path ahead is tougher and we risk losing momentum if future legal targets are loosened on a technicality,” said committee chairman Piers Forster.

“The UK is already substantially off track for 2030 and the government must resist the temptation to take their foot off the accelerator.”

A key improvement came from cleaner electricity, with Britain turning its back on coal power faster than had been predicted.

It helped Britain produce only 2,141 megatonnes of CO2 or equivalent in the five-year period, when 2,544 had been calculated in the carbon budget.

The targets become steeper as time goes on, with emissions meant to fall again to 1,950 megatonnes by 2027.

Britain must hand in a new five-year climate plan by 2025, taking into account the global battle plan agreed at the Cop28 negotiations in Dubai.

Despite the overall surplus there was a “lack of progress” in cutting emissions from cars and making heating more efficient, the committee said.

A shift to larger cars partly cancelled out a move to electric vehicles, which proceeded more slowly than hoped.

Reduced travel demand during the pandemic accounted for about 10 per cent of the emissions cuts.

Britain has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050 as part of a worldwide push to limit the warming of the planet to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Mr Stuart, who represented the UK at the Cop28 talks in the UAE, had taken soundings on whether the surplus could be carried forward.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has cited Britain’s progress towards net zero as justification for scaling back some green policies.

But the committee’s letter, signed by Prof Forster, said its “unequivocal advice” was that the next five-year budget should not be loosened.

“We need to build on our success to date by accelerating, not slowing down, emissions reductions in all sectors outside electricity supply,” it said.

Politicians are also being urged to consider the economic benefits of net zero, regarded as an overperforming sector in a weak UK business landscape.

Simon Cran-McGreehin, an analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said relaxing targets would risk investment in the green sector.

“Beating the previous carbon budget was a fluke, with the pandemic and the gas crisis reducing energy demand and masking the UK’s slow progress on insulating homes and building out onshore wind,” he said.

“The net zero economy grew 9 per cent in the past year. If targets were effectively lowered, what signal does that send to global investors and where does it leave the UK’s energy security?”.

Updated: February 28, 2024, 11:18 AM