The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has criticised the lack of firm policies to back up the UK’s ambitious climate change targets.
In the group's latest two progress reports, it warned that time is running out for realistic climate commitments. As such, it is “absolutely critical” that a new net zero strategy is published before the COP26 climate summit, which is set to be held in Glasgow in November. This must be backed fully by the Treasury, and accompanied by a commitment to prepare the country for the risks facing it.
In today’s two reports, the Committee appraised the progress on both cutting emissions to net zero and adapting to climate risks facing the UK, calling on the government to “act quickly – be bold and decisive".
The UK is in a decisive decade said Lord Deben, chairman of the CCC, and the government must “get real on delivery".
“Global Britain has to prove that it can lead a global change in how we treat our planet. Get it right and UK action will echo widely. Continue to be slow and timid and the opportunity will slip from our hands. Between now and COP26 the world will look for delivery, not promises.”
Reducing emissions – electricity proves a success story but more is needed
Within the Progress in reducing emissions - 2021 Report to Parliament, the CCC highlighted that the decarbonisation of the energy sector in the UK has been one of the country’s success stories. The deployment of renewable energy has scaled up rapidly, producing 29% of the country’s electricity in 2020, and sales of electric vehicles (EVs) and the rollout out of the required infrastructure have increased considerably.
This is being aided by the continuing falls in the prices of clean energy technologies. The CCC pointed to research from the International Renewable Energy Agency that showed that over half of installed renewable electricity generation capacity in 2019 globally was cheaper than new coal plant alternatives. Similarly, the cost of batteries – the most expensive bit of an EV – has fallen nearly 90% over the last decade, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
But decarbonising the energy sector still needs to go further and faster, and solid commitments must be matched in sectors like housing and transport as well as electricity. As Lord Deben and Baroness Brown wrote in the foreword of the report, it is “hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen in the last 12 months".
Instead there have been “gaps and ambiguities”, with climate resilience remaining a second-order issue that allows the country to “blunder into high-carbon choices”.
This has been evident in the failure of the Green Homes Grant, which was shuttered early, taking away financial aid for those interested in measures such as heat pumps and insultation.
The decarbonisation of buildings will be key to reaching the UK’s climate targets, as in 2019 they represented 18% of the country’s emissions. Changes to heating will be required, shifting households away from the fossil fuel boilers that are the norm currently. As such the CCC has identified the rollout of heat pumps – along with other low carbon systems such as heat networks – as one of its priority areas.
While the number of heat pumps installed did rise slightly from 33,000 in 2019 to 36,000 in 2020, this remains significantly below the rates needed. By 2025, just over 400,000 heat pump installations per year will be needed, growing to just over 900,000 per year by 2028 to match the Sixth Carbon Budget. This is beyond the target of 600,000 per year by 2028 set by the government in its Ten Point Plan.
Changes need to be made by the government to set a clear direction, make low-carbon technologies financially attractive and implement enabling measures to help decarbonise the housing stock. This should include bringing in an ambitious Heat and Buildings Strategy, which is urgently needed the CCC said.
“The priority now must be on implementing a comprehensive policy package, and enshrining the long-term standards framework in regulation and law, to finalise the roadmap for decarbonising the UK building stock,” the report stated.
The electricity grid has been transitioning much faster to low carbon solutions, and generation should be fully decarbonised by 2035, even with a 50% increase in annual demand the CCC found.
In 2019, electricity supply accounted for 52MtCO2e, or 10% of the UK’s emissions. They fell by 15% last year, in line with the average rate over the previous five years.
While there was only an additional 0.8GW of variable renewable capacity installed in 2020 – well below the 3.8GW achieved in the previous five years – this is expected to be a temporary impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forwards, there is a strong pipeline of renewables including 20GW of offshore wind capacity which is in development and/or pre-planning.
COVID-19 caused electricity demand to drop in 2020, helping low carbon generation to grow by 5% to make up 62% of total electricity generation in the year, up from 57% in 2019. Fossil fuel generation fell by 17%, largely due to unabated gas being squeezed out by increased renewable output and low demand, although as coal plants continued to close ahead of the 2024 ban, generation from coal also fell.
As such, the carbon intensity of the electricity grid fell by 10% in 2020 to 182gCO2/kWh. To reach net zero, this needs to continue to fall substantially over the 2020s, said the CCC, to less than 50gCO2/kWh in 2030 and around 10gCO2/kWh in 2035.
The Committee will continue to track these milestones, as well as developing additional indicators for assessing the use of flexibility on the demand-side from technologies such as EVs and heat pumps.
Clear policy is still needed to drive forwards additional renewable capacity, with medium to long-term ambition set and clarity around the next Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction, including its schedule and volumes, needed. As part of the ‘green recovery’ from COVID-19, the government should double the capacity contracted within the CfDs up to 12GW.
Another relative success noted in the report was the growth in the sales of EVs and the rollout of chargepoints. There are now 20,800 public EV chargepoints across the UK, the CCC said, up from 16,500 in 2019. But these are not geographically spread, with a disproportionate share in London and other urban areas of the south east.
More needs to be done to drive the rollout of EV charging infrastructure, with hope there will be further policy detail in the upcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan.
Adapting to climate change - electricity sector must go further
The energy sector has taken steps to prepare for the impact of climate change, the CCC noted in its second report Progress in adapting to climate change - 2021 Report to Parliament.
Risk management within the energy sector was rated as medium, as it can expect increased exposure to surface waterflooding at power stations and electricity substations. While there is £172 million worth of planned investment in flood protection measures to 2023, more work is needed to understand the implications of water availability on the energy sector.
Already 90% of substations (550/589) deemed at risk of flooding in the CCC’s 2019 report should be resilient to a 1/1000 year flood event this year.
But as a very interconnected sector, there is a risk of cascading impacts should climate change driven weather events impact generation or transmission. This can be seen in the 2019 blackout – the only significant loss of generation capacity due to weather since 2015, despite periods of extreme heat and storms testing the security of the energy system – when a lightning strike led to a million people losing power and brought train networks to a standstill.
As the UK continues to decarbonise, more sectors will rely on electrification and therefore a similar weather event could have a larger impact. Electricity currently provides about 15-20% of the country’s energy, but by 2050 it could account for 55-65% as it will be used for light, heat, communications, transport, industry and delivery of other critical services such as water. Additionally, renewables will scale to provide 80% of this electricity by 2050 the CCC said.
Therefore new energy infrastructure and supplies will need to be developed, making sure they are increasingly resilient to climate change.
“The UK is leading in diagnosis but lagging in policy and action,” added Baroness Brown, chair of the Adaptation Committee. “This cannot be put off further. We cannot deliver net zero without serious action on adaptation.
"We need action now, followed by a National Adaptation Programme that must be more ambitious; more comprehensive; and better focused on implementation than its predecessors, to improve national resilience to climate change.”