UK Throws Down Gauntlet on Climate Change with Emissions Target Upgrade
The UK recently announced an ambitious new carbon emissions target. The country now aims to reduce annual carbon emissions by at least 68% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, which represents a significant increase from the current target of a 57% reduction.
This target constitutes the UK’s recently submitted Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015: all countries are required to present new aims by the end of 2020. The UK government’s press release states that this target is “among the highest in the world and commits the UK to cutting emissions at the fastest rate of any major economy so far”.
Such a significant scaling up of ambition can be linked to the UK government’s hope that the new target can motivate other countries to follow suit ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in late 2021. The Financial Times commented that “The UK … threw down the gauntlet to other countries … by becoming one of the first leading economies to upgrade its carbon emissions reduction target for 2030”.
This target is also in line with the Prime Minister’s “Ten Point Plan” for a green revolution, which aims to create more jobs and develop UK infrastructure in an environmentally sustainable manner. This Plan was published in November 2020 and sets out the approach which the UK government will take in a post Covid-19 world to reach net zero by 2050 and create more green jobs.
News of the new target was greeted with acclaim by many industry leaders including John Pettigrew, CEO of National Grid plc. He commented: “This is a strong commitment and shows the UK leading the way ahead of hosting COP next year. It lays the foundations for the constructive engagement needed to deliver an ambitious set of global goals to achieve 1.5C by 2050”.
Prominent environmental figures have argued that it is hypocritical to pledge £127 billion to the HS2 rail link and new roads while offering only £1 billion to home insulation, despite the former initially hugely increasing emissions yet the latter immediately reducing them.  Professor Brian Hoskins, Chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, remarked: “the actions of the chancellor don’t measure up. Every single department has to wear climate change glasses when they think of new policies, and the Treasury clearly hasn’t got that message”.
However, on a more hopeful note, the Committee on Climate Change (which advises the UK government) welcomed the announcement of the 68% cut with a note that “it should be accompanied by wider climate commitments”. We should all hope that these wider climate commitments are agreed at the COP26 summit in Glasgow next year. It would be a really positive start to the next decade if top-level policymakers acted ambitiously and unanimously, in line with the momentum built up by young people over the past few years. It has been encouraging this year to see members of my generation continuing to lobby politicians to take urgent climate action, despite the challenges presented by Covid-19. We will have to wait to see if politicians are able to maintain a similar focus on the environment.
 The Sustainability Statement for a HS2 Consultation document, which is available on the UK government website, confirms this: “over the construction and the first 60 years of operation of HS2, it is likely that carbon savings -– will be less than the carbon emissions, resulting largely from the construction phase”