Reducing UK Emissions - Progress Report to Parliament 2020 Committee on Climate Change

By Kevin Boon


The Committee on Climate Change is an independent non-departmental public body, formed under the Climate Change Act, to advise the UK and devolved Governments and Parliaments on tackling and preparing for climate change. As in 2019, the Committee’s emphatic message remains “Now, do it”. 

Last year the UK parliament legislated for Zero Carbon by 2050. This compares to the previous target of an 80% reduction by 2050. Recovery from COVID-19 is a defining moment in tackling the climate crisis. It needs to accelerate the transition to Net Zero, strengthen resilience and drive economic activity. The Committee proposes the following immediate actions:

  • Investments in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure.
  • Support for reskilling, retraining and research for a net-zero, climate-resilient economy.
  • Upgrades to homes and other buildings ensuring they are fit for the future.
  • Action to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely.
  • Tree planting, peatland restoration, green spaces and other green infrastructure.

In the period 2008-2019, overall UK “territorial emissions” (those within the country’s borders) have decreased by about 30%, the greatest drop of any G20 economy, while the economy grew by 15%. (The reduction is not so good if we consider “consumption emissions” taking account of trade, aviation and shipping). Reductions have been primarily driven by decarbonisation of the power sector. However, policies to drive emissions reductions across other significant sectors of the economy are generally far from complete and there are significant gaps. Progress is particularly slow with industrial emissions, buildings and agriculture and land use. The Committee sets a target of 100% zero-carbon vehicles by the latest 2032 (currently 2040) and ceasing the use of diesel trains by 2040. The proposed date for phasing out gas boilers is 2035. The report proposes a ban on biodegradable waste going to landfill from 2025. Importantly, it is advised that international aviation and shipping should be included in the 2021 UK climate targets (these are currently not included). Progress is not on-track in terms of adaptation to build climate resilience. 

Reducing UK Emissions - Progress Report to Parliament 2020  Committee on Climate Change

The report provides recommendations by each government department; Net Zero needs to be integrated into all policy making. Of particular interest is large-scale hydrogen trials scheduled for the early 2020s. Also proposed are policies to encourage consumers to shift to healthier diets, reduce food waste plus a 70% recycling rate by 2030. Also put forward is for education to provide greater public awareness and understanding along with transitioning to low-carbon and climate resilient jobs. The Committee highlights the need for the climate challenge to be considered in the context of biodiversity loss.

The government’s carbon budget projections indicate we are falling significantly short of meeting the Zero Carbon 2050 target. In discussing transition, the Committee makes reference to nuclear power and the use of fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. Electrification of transport and heating is predicted to roughly double power demand. Hydrogen production capacity, for use in shipping, industry and peak electricity generation, is estimated to become of comparable size to the current fleet of gas-fired power stations. There will need to be a shift in land use to biomass production, tree planting (30,000 ha per year) and restoration of peatland. Sequestration is needed to offset residual emissions predominantly from aviation and agriculture.

 Reducing UK Emissions - Progress Report to Parliament 2020  Committee on Climate Change

The UK needs to produce a comprehensive and detailed economy-wide policy programme well in advance of next year’s COP. Government will have to submit Nationally Determined Contributions for intended emissions reductions to 2030 and an adaptation strategy. The report presents both a global and UK sector assessment of emission trends and policies. There are currently 120 countries with a proposed Net Zero target of some form. 

The report includes a section reviewing UK policy since the Climate Change Act of 2008 and lessons to be learned. These include clear direction, investable policies, enabling measures, fairness, contingency and flexibility. There is an assessment of emissions and policy for the last year and progress tracked through 21 indicators. Current status is that we are only on track for four of these indicators, two of which are in the power sector. Overall the government has only fully achieved two milestones out of the 31 set out in the 2019 Progress Report. However, partial progress has been made on 15 milestones predominantly in transport and industry. 

Reducing UK Emissions - Progress Report to Parliament 2020  Committee on Climate Change

National and global steps to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic damage can accelerate the transition to low-carbon activities and improve our climate resilience. Short-term choices that lock-in emissions or climate risks must be avoided. The new behaviours that have emerged following lockdown and social distancing (for example home-working, use of public transport) have the potential to alter our long-term emissions trajectory. The Committee considers the economic issues and principles of a resilient recovery from COVID-19. It presents significant evidence supporting the benefits of a green-based stimulus. It also proposes a series of projects such as low-carbon retrofits and buildings that are fit for the future, infrastructure to move towards a so-called “circular economy” and targeted funding of science and innovation. The citizens’ assembly, convened in June 2019, will be reporting later in 2020 on how the UK can achieve Net Zero by 2050.

Conclusion – The Committee urges the government to urgently engage with other countries ahead of COP 26 in particular to ensure their COVID-19 recovery plans are consistent with the necessary emission reductions. As COP host, the UK must also be an exemplar in providing climate finance to vulnerable, developing countries. 

Both Net Zero and adaptation need to be integrated into all government policy. The Committee reports that the UK government has, to date, placed insufficient priority on adaptation. It sets out priority actions for the next year in particular relating to buildings, transport, industry and land use. 

The Report can be downloaded here.