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‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ to tackle challenges of climate change and COVID-19, says CCC

Image: Getty.

Image: Getty.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has called on ministers to seize the opportunity and commit to a low-carbon recovery from COVID-19.

In the committee's new 2020 Progress Report to Parliament, it highlighted the need to decarbonise heat, strengthen energy networks and transition to low-carbon transport if the UK is to reach its net zero by 2050 target. On average emissions will need to fall by 14MtCO₂e every year - the equivalent to 3% of emissions in 2019 - to reach this goal.

But the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK has been “staggering” said the report, and economic challenges lay in front of the country and the world.

CCC Chairman, Lord Deben, said: “The UK is facing its biggest economic shock for a generation. Meanwhile, the global crisis of climate change is accelerating. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these urgent challenges together; it’s there for the taking.

“The steps that the UK takes to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic can accelerate the transition to a successful and low-carbon economy and improve our climate resilience. Choices that lock in emissions or climate risks are unacceptable.”

The report precedes the Sixth Carbon Budget (2033-2037), which will be produced by the CCC in December after it was delayed to take into account the impact of COVID-19. Similarly, the COP26 climate conference has been delayed until 2021, which gives the UK, the CCC said, an opportunity to truly show its commitment to keeping emissions within 2°C.


"Now is the moment to get our house in order"

The call for a green recovery dominated the CCC’s report, asking the government to both accelerate the transition to net zero and strengthen the UK's resilience to climate change as the country comes out of lockdown.

Already, the committee has written to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, outlining key measures to move the country forwards in six policy priorities that are echoed throughout today’s report.

However, the fundamentals needed to achieve net zero remain largely unchanged by the pandemic; there is still a need for investment in infrastructure and reskilling of workers, the report said. But both of these aspects could also help the UK recover from COVID-19.

“A clear lesson from COVID-19 is the value of preparation and the costs when there is insufficient resilience headroom for shocks,” stated the report. “Actions to tackle climate change can accelerate the recovery from the pandemic and build back in a more resilient way.”

Like with COVID-19, tackling climate change requires an evidence based planning approach, early actions to help minimise damage, a global solution and protection of the most vulnerable.

Chair of the CCC’s Adaptation Committee, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, said: “COVID-19 has shown that planning for systemic risks is unavoidable. We have warned repeatedly that the UK is poorly prepared for the very serious impacts of climate change, including flooding, overheating and water shortages.

"Now is the moment to get our house in order, coordinate national planning, and prepare for the inevitable changes ahead. The UK’s domestic ambition can be the basis for strong international climate leadership, but the delivery of effective new policies must accelerate dramatically if we’re to seize this chance.”

In the UK and elsewhere, lockdown has led to energy demand collapsing, in turn leading to a decade-low average wholesale spot price of £23.0/MWh in April 2020. Additionally, it will lead to a reduction in emissions for the year, but the CCC has warned that this is transient and will therefore only have a negligible impact on global warming.

A global recession – the worst since the 1930s – is being predicted to follow the pandemic, with the UK’s GP falling 2% in the first quarter of 2020 alone, and by over 20% in April. This will undoubtedly have an impact on the energy sector, and decarbonisation efforts.

The CCC reaffirmed the demand of many other associations, companies, and groups that a green recovery could help protect jobs and help rebuild the economy. Within its report it points to the Climate Assembly’s findings that 79% of member agree net zero must form a key aspect of the recovery process.

In the long run, investments by the government in low carbon and adaption technologies will create a "virtuous reinforcing cycle", as costs are lowered helping to accelerate deployment and innovation. This has already been seen in solar, wind and battery technologies, the CCC added.


Heating and homes policy still lagging behind

Policy has lagged behind what is needed for the decarbonisation of heat, the CCC has said, a critique raised last year by the committee. While the Future Homes Standard will mean new homes will be built to be zero-carbon from 2025, it should have been introduced earlier. Since the Climate Change Act was passed, for example, nearly two million homes have been built that will now require expensive zero-carbon retrofits.

The delay in the introduction has been criticised by many, with Centrica calling for the Future Homes Standard to be implemented immediately in a piece of research published in May.

With the COP26 climate conference postponed, the UK has the opportunity to address policy deficit’s, according to the CCC. A key aspect of this is the Buildings and Heat Strategy, which must take low-carbon heating from a “niche market in the UK to the dominant form of new heating installation by the early-2030s".

The strategy should be supported by improved energy efficiency, which would help cut costs for consumers as well as help tackle emissions. It must set a clear direction for the phasing out of new gas boilers by 2035 at the latest, which should be back by the standards brought in.

As well as new build houses, the UK's 29 million existing residential dwellings and all commercial buildings will need to be decarbonised, with electrification, alongside district heating schemes, the best options.

Tax or levy changes can be used to support low carbon heating options over fossil fuels alternatives, and grants at a much larger scale than currently available could further bolster this transition. As it stands, funding would only support deployment of 12,500 heat pumps per year, and is therefore inadequate. There are 1.5 million oil and LPG boilers that will be phased out from later this decade, and the industry must scale up to meet this demand, the CCC said.

The role of local authorities in driving early progress is also pressed, and the government must back this up with the necessary resources.

The Renewable Heat Incentive was extended and there are proposed reforms that will help decarbonise the UK’s heating, however they are “far too limited to drive the transformation required to decarbonise the UK's existing buildings". As such, this has left a lot more work for the Buildings and Heat Strategy.

Decarbonising heat is becoming increasingly pressing, with many worried it’s been left behind. In 2019, building were responsibly for 18% of the country’s emissions.

Energy efficiency measures can also play a key role in cutting emissions from buildings, but while the CCC said the government’s election manifesto pledge of £9 billion was welcome, it continued to warn that the pledge did not go far enough. This has also been delayed as the country awaits the National Infrastructure Strategy.

“There remains a longstanding need to integrate emissions reduction measures in homes with improvements to resilience and indoor environmental quality,” the report states. “Having a policy that considers all of these together is critical to ensure building safety and comfort.”


ICE phase-out should be 2032 "at the latest"

Whilst the CCC was quick to praise advancements made in the electrification of transport, in particular the number of chargepoints in the UK – which it said now stands at 30,000 – and the ~140 EV models available globally, it was also clear that the transport sector has seen “only partial progress” against a number of policy milestones.

The CCC outlined these milestones for 2019 and 2020 in last year’s Progress Report, however of the five milestones relating to transport, none have been fully completed.

It has been a staunch supporter of an earlier phase-out of ICE vehicles, last year recommending a phaseout between 2030 and 2035. Whilst the government is consulting on bringing this forward to 2035 – or sooner – the CCC is recommending this is now brought forward to 2032 “at the latest”.

Other policies only partly achieved by the government include implementing policies – including fiscal instruments – to strengthen incentives to purchase cleaner vehicles, setting out policies to address the decline in bus usage and setting stretching targets for CO₂ emissions reductions from new HGVs to address the rise in emissions.

The final policy milestone – clarifying the UK regulatory approach to the EU 2020/21 new car and van CO2 targets and setting stretching targets beyond 2020 – has also only been partly achieved.

However, the CCC did go on to state that outside of these milestones the government has made broader progress. It highlighted the reduction in benefit-in-kind taxes to 0% for 2020/21, as well as the plug-in car grant continuing to 2022/23, although the amount available has been reduced.

Other progress included the doubling of financial support for on-street charging to £10 million and the £500 million pledged to help develop rapid charging hubs, as well as the forthcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan, with the initial ‘Setting the Challenge’ report already published.

Following on from this assessment, the CCC made a series of recommendations for the government, including:

It also highlighted how public investment in the charging networks will “remain important”, as well as stating it supports the recommendations made by the Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce.

“These policies are needed to drive the UK market for zero emission vehicles. They will also strengthen the case for investments in the supply of these vehicles in the UK, and the batteries that they will require,” the report states.


"CCS is a necessity, not an option"

The power sector has helped lead the UK's decarbonisation efforts over the last few decades. Between 2008 and 2019, for example, territorial emissions fell by 30%, with power sector emissions falling by 68% during this period.

Currently, the power sector is actually advancing in line with the large scale requirements to reach net zero, according to the CCC, and should continue to aim for an emissions intensity of 50gCO₂/kWh by 2030.

The committee welcomed the record low prices of the 6GW of offshore wind contracts awarded last year, along with the increased ambition to reach 40GW of offshore wind by 2030. Additionally, the reintroduction of onshore wind and solar Contracts for Difference auctions was praised, although the CCC highlighted that a clear timetable would support delivery and development.

When the long-delayed Energy White Paper is published – the CCC's report suggests it is due later in 2020 – it should help tackle challenges the renewable energy sector faces, in particular with regards to the economic benefits of flexibility and the need for resilience.

Additionally, there should be an ambitious policy package for low-carbon hydrogen, whilst bioenergy and waste is tightly regulated to ensure sustainability, and any bail-outs for the oil and gas sector must be tied to net zero business models.

For industry, electricity and hydrogen production, carbon capture and storage should be considered, with the government choosing a preferred funding model and mechanism by the end of 2020. This will allow planning of industrial clusters, like the Zero Carbon Humber.

The report states that “CCS is a necessity, not an option,” and that by 2050 an aggregate annual capture and storage of 75-175MtCO₂ will be needed for net zero. At least five clusters will be required to reach such a level, with transport and storage infrastructure required for all.

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