May 26, 2024


Ministers are considering plans to weaken the UK’s carbon-cutting plans by allowing the unused portion of the last carbon budget to be carried over to the next period.

This would go against the strong recommendation of the government’s statutory climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee.

But it would make the next targets easier to meet. The UK has emitted less carbon dioxide in recent years than was expected, owing to factors including the Covid-19 pandemic and sluggish economic growth. This should be ignored, allowing for the next set of five-yearly emission targets to be more stringent, the better to reach net zero by 2050, the CCC has said.

Ministers have until the end of this month to decide, and have only publicly said that such a decision would be made “in due course”.

Campaigners fear they are likely to take advantage of the loophole.

Dustin Benton, policy director at Green Alliance, warned: “The government will make a grave error of judgment if it weakens plans to cut emissions, ‘carrying forward’ a right to burn carbon that only exists because the UK economy has grown less quickly than we thought when we set the third carbon budget in 2008.”

The UK would still have to meet its target of cutting emissions by 68% by 2030, set at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.

“Cashing in phantom credits wouldn’t change our international commitments – it just means we’d need to double the rate at which we cut emissions late this decade, making the job much harder,” Benton said. “It would contradict advice from the UK’s climate watchdog, which is never a good look. By shifting the goalposts, it sends yet another signal that this government isn’t serious about supporting the green industries of the future.”

He pointed to Green Alliance research that has shown only half of carbon reductions needed by 2032 are covered by confirmed policy. “We need action to close the gap – not excuses for inaction,” he said.

The UK overachieved on meeting its third five-year carbon budget, which ran from 2018 to 2022, requiring reductions of 38% compared with 1990 levels. The emissions cap for the budget was 2,544 megatons of CO2 equivalent, but the actual emissions were 391 MtCO2e fewer, or 15% below the budget.

Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, ministers are allowed to count the surplus of emissions savings, compared with the budgetary requirement, towards the next carbon budget. That would make the next budget easier to meet, but could also slow the UK’s path towards meeting net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

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In February, the CCC asked the government not to carry over the surplus savings.

The government has yet to make a decision, according to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

A spokesperson told the Guardian: “We are the first major economy to halve emissions and have the most ambitious legally binding emissions targets in the world. We have overdelivered on every carbon budget to date, and will continue to meet our emissions targets. A decision on whether the UK’s overachievement on the third carbon budget is carried over will be made in due course.”

A spokesperson for the Labour party called on the government not to carry over the surplus, but stopped short of commuting to reverse any such decision if elected. “The government must meet their climate targets – that is the way to cut bills for good, create jobs, and make the UK energy independent,” they said. “After the high court has again found their plans to deliver these benefits unlawfully inadequate, the government should be doing what is necessary to get back on track, not fiddling their numbers.”



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