The Government’s long-term plan for decarbonising the UK economy has been hailed as a world leader because it is the first to include national carbon budgets. It has gained credit too from its adoption of an ambitious 80% target for greenhouse gas emission cuts by 2050. What is not not so clear from the Government’s glossy 220-page booklet spelling out the strategy is that the manner in which it is proposed to achieve its goals casts it in a very different light.
UK greenhouse gas emissions (of which carbon is by far the most significant, accounting for about 70%) have declined by only about 1% a year since the 1990 baseline. That means that cuts of 3.2% per year are needed from now to meet the 80% reduction target by 2050. That’s a tall order, both in enormously improved technology and hugely changed behaviour, but it’s made all the more difficult by the Government (rightly) accepting under pressure that emissions from international aviation and shipping, which are very substantial, should be included. But the Government has a trick up its sleeve.
Its primary policy instrument for delivering the plan targets is the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) which requires energy-intensive industries to obtain permits for their emissions in a market. Crucially however the ETS allows these big polluters to buy emission credits as a substitute for cutting their own emissions. When they are bought from abroad, they count towards the UK targets.
What the Government is proposing is that 70% of UK emissions come from industrial sectors that are within the EU ETS, and that there should be no limit on the number of emission credits that are used to meet this target. Thus the only part of the UK target which will be achieved entirely by in-country reductions is the 30% that derives from non-ETS sectors. Even if some of the 70% ETS cuts are generated at home, it is likely that at least half of the UK target will be purchased from abroad, not earned at home.
This puts an entirely different complexion on the Government’s Low Carbon Transition plan. It explains why the Government is so relaxed about giving the go-ahead to the third runway at Heathrow and the tripling of airport capacity as well as to a series of new coal-fired power stations beginning at Kingsnorth in Kent without requiring prior installation of carbon capture and storage. Both of these developments will hugely increase UK greenhouse gas emissions, but respectively the airline industry and the big coal-burning generators like E.ON will simply buy whatever emission credits are necessary from abroad.
The other side of this deceitful calculation is that the developing world will be left with an additional and disproportionate burden. The G8 has taken on the original UK target of a 50% cut by 2050. Now 50% of world greenhouse gas production is some 14.6bn tonnes, so if the 35 rich industrialised countries (Annex 1 countries in the Kyoto jargon) reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, i.e. including the offsets they’ve purchased, that will pare back global emissions by 12bn tonnes. That leaves other countries to make emission cuts amounting to the 2.6bn tonnes shortfall, over and above the offsets that they’ve sold. Their total obligation therefore rises to 8.6bn tonnes which amounts to no less than 60% of their present emissions.
The UK Low Carbon Transition plan thus turns out, rather ingloriously, to allow the rich countries – the originators of the whole climate destruction scenario in the first place – to cut their emissions only by some 40% while the developing coluntries, the victims, are required to cut by a massive 60%. It lets the worst polluters off the hook, it puts the developing countries in an impossible bind, and because the latter cannot possibly achieve what is now being offloaded on to them, it will open up a gigantic hole in the entire global project to arrest and reverse climate destruction.