COP Notes: Is the UK failing to support its own policy on carbon neutrality?

Does Mr Davey know he might already have signed up to carbon neutrality? 

Over in Lima something has gone a little awry with the UK’s negotiating position.

As the summit progresses a groundswell of support has developed in favour of including in the final text a statement of bold ambition, grounded in the science of climate change, to ensure the world is carbon neutral by 2050.

Zero emissions

It’s a fairly simple statement – although open to some interpretation.

Many argue it means no emissions from fossil fuels by that date – anywhere (unless they are permanently disposed of somehow).

Now, one might think the UK might be pretty keen to sign up to such an ambition. After all, in a recent study the UK was ranked 3rd on the planet for climate ambition.

It is one of relatively few countries with emissions targets embedded in legislation.

The UK’s Climate Change Act is designed to match up both with the science of climate change and EU targets on emissions reductions by 2050.

But here’s the wrinkle. There seems to be some mis-understanding about what that act means.

The act is designed to ensure the UK reduces its greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by ‘at least’ 80% from 1990 levels, by 2050.

Climate change act 

That ‘at least’ is important, because it tallies in with the overall EU target we’re signed up to of an emissions reduction of 80-95%.

Now, you might say that doesn’t sound very like zero, it sounds like 5-20% sticking around.

But the key phrase here is “greenhouse gas emissions”, not all GHGs are of the carbon dioxide variety and many, especially those linked to agriculture, are far far harder to reduce.

That’s why the IPCC, in its recent report, suggested carbon emissions would have to hit zero before GHG emissions did.

It’s why the UN Environment Programme – in it’s latest study – called for carbon emissions to peak by 2055 with overall emissions slipping to net zero in 2080 or 2100.

Now the level of non-carbon GHG’s is going to vary from country to country and we can’t find a prediction for the level of UK non-carbon GHG’s by 2050.

Agriculture doesn’t get cut

Unlike those from agriculture some non-carbon GHG’s are relatively easy to tackle and the UK’s independent climate advisors note that lots of progress has been made doing so.

But that still leaves a solid chunk amounting to more than 12% of the UK’s total GHG emissions in 1990 – the reference date for this sort of thing.

And, if you dig a little deeper, much of that comes from areas such as agriculture where further cuts may be hard to find – and that’s before you factor in any increased methane emissions from shale gas.

So you can’t be precise, and it does depend, but cutting emissions by 80-95%, or simply by 80%, is likely to leave very little room either side of zero carbon – which is the basis for most of the extensive calculations the UK’s climate advisors have carried out.

The UK’s Climate Change Secretary may, or may not, think it is likely that the UN process will achieve carbon neutrality as a goal.

But given his government’s commitment to something extremely similar, it seems somewhat odd he wouldn’t want to push others in the same direction.

With the  EU’s climate deal bringing others in line with the UK act and the US & China more active in global negotiations he may be staring at an open door.