Pressure grows on Boris Johnson over UK carbon emissions plan


Boris Johnson is facing a fresh test of his green commitments as the UK prepares to submit its national plan on future carbon emissions, before crucial UN climate negotiations.

Pressure is growing on the prime minister to come up with an ambitious national target – known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC) – on cutting emissions substantially by 2030, because the UK will host the postponed Cop26 summit next year.

The UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, spoke out on Thursday on the need for developed countries to step up their ambition. In a speech to the European council on foreign relations, he said: “By early 2021, countries representing more than 65% of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70% of the world economy will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality.

Quick guide What is the UK’s NDC?

What is the UK’s NDC and why is it important?

Every country signing up to the Paris agreement set out a target, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. But the initial round in 2015 were insufficient to fulfil the Paris goal, of holding global heating well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, with an aspiration to a 1.5C limit.

The accord contains a “ratchet” mechanism by which each country must toughen its target every five years, so new NDCs must be submitted by 31 December 2020.

Who has come up with an updated NDC so far?

Many developing countries but few of the world’s major economies. China has pledged to cause its emissions to peak by 2030, but a new NDC is unlikely before its 5-year plan in March. Japan has submitted an NDC barely improved since its 2015 pledge, so is under pressure to do more. The US will not submit one under Donald Trump, but president-elect Joe Biden will hope to prepare one in his first few months in office. The EU is hoping to submit a target of cutting emissions by 55% compared with 1990 levels by 2030, though discussions are not yet complete and there is resistance from some member states.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has delayed the next UN climate summit – Cop26 – by a year to November 2021, means many countries will miss the deadline, though they will be encouraged to submit early next year, so the NDCs can be analysed by the UN before Cop26.

What will the UK’s NDC target be?

NDCs contain many components, but the central point is a near-term target for 2030 on emissions cuts, usually compared with a 1990 baseline. For the UK, the potential range is likely to be between 65% and 75%.

The lower end of 65% was judged feasible in a report last year by the UK’s statutory advisers, the Committee on Climate Change. But that advice is likely to be revised in a fresh report this December, as the CCC chief told the Guardian the cost of reducing emissions had tumbled further.

If the CCC’s research supports a tougher target, it will be difficult for the government to justify anything under 70%. Less would be regarded as lacking in ambition, encouraging other countries to submit feeble NDCs, and could lead to discord at Cop26.

“But we are still running behind in the race against time. Every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for transitioning to net – zero emissions by 2050. We need to see these plans well in advance of Cop26 – in particular the NDCs required under the Paris agreement.”

Nicholas Stern, the author of the landmark review of the economics of climate change and chair of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, told the Guardian the UK should aim for a cut of 70% in emissions by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.

Green campaigners wrote to Johnson on Friday calling for a carbon cut of at least 75% to be adopted as UK policy, arguing this was possible in the light of the government’s 10-point plan for a green economy.

The letter cited analysis showing a target of 72% cuts was feasible now, with stiffer cuts possible given the political will, as the world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic showed how swiftly action could be taken in an emergency. “Given the need for the UK to take on our fair share of global emissions reductions based on historic responsibility, we must move further and faster and commit to pursuing every opportunity to even exceed this target, as well as lead global efforts to close the gap to 1.5C,” wrote the signatories.

The Treasury is reported to have been reluctant to commit more money to key aspects of the prime minister’s 10-point plan on moving to a low-carbon economy. The key question is whether those who want a slower speed of climate action will win over the prime minister.

The 10-point plan would still leave the UK would still leave the UK lagging behind the EU and slightly behind France in the global green recovery, in a global ranking prepared by Vivid Economics for the Guardian, which also found the world was continuing to pour money into fossil fuels.

If the UK were still an EU member state, it would be part of the bloc’s sharing arrangement on carbon cuts. The EU is likely to formalise a target of 55% emissions cuts overall for 2030, and that would imply emissions cuts for the UK of more than 65%, which is what some within government are basing their calculations on. The committee on climate change also found the UK could achieve a target of 65% in a report last year, though it is expected to revise its figures.

But a target of less than 70% would be regarded by some other countries as failing to show a good example.

Johnson must step in quickly to resolve the competing views over how ambitious the UK should be in its 2030 target, ahead of a meeting he has called of world leaders this December, experts have told the Guardian. An unambitious target would be seen as a poor indicator for the UK’s presidency of the next UN climate talks.

Stern said the prime minister had shown commitment to a low-carbon economy in his 10-point plan. “[He] now understands that this is a growth story, not a burden,” Stern said. “But it does need strong investment and innovation.”

Under the Paris climate agreement, all countries must come forward by the end of this year with strengthened commitments on reducing emissions, in line with the goal of limiting temperature rises to well below 2C, with an aspiration to keep within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels. Current commitments, made in 2015, would lead to 3C of heating, which scientists say would have catastrophic consequences.

In recent weeks, China and Japan have presented pledges to reach net – zero emissions by 2050. That will provide the long-term goals required under Paris, but still leaves questions over short-term commitments on specific emissions reductions in the next decade.

Johnson and his ministers and officials have repeatedly urged other countries to come forward with their NDCs.

The Guardian understands that the UK intends to publish its NDC before a crucial meeting of world leaders next month, to be hosted by Johnson and Guterres. The climate ambition summit will take place on 12 December, the fifth anniversary of the forging of the Paris agreement.

The virtual meeting of world leaders is seen as a critical milestone on the way to Cop26, the UN climate summit that was scheduled to start last week but, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, is to be held next November in Glasgow.

Countries are supposed to submit their NDCs by the end of this year, so the UN and scientific experts will have time to examine them in detail before Cop26.

However, the UK is likely to run very close to its own deadline of the 12 December summit. That is because the committee on climate change – the government’s statutory advisers – will make its report on a sixth carbon budget, for the period 2033 to 2037, on 9 December. Ministers are expected to wait until then before announcing the UK’s NDC.

Chris Stark, the chief executive of the committee, told the Guardian: “For us to be a good chair of these discussions, a good president, I think we need to have a strong set of domestic plans for cutting emissions here in the UK.”


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