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Global climate change commitments bolstered at summit

Global leaders should embed bold actions to address the climate crisis into their coronavirus recovery plans, UN secretary-general António Guterres has said.

Guterres was commenting at the end of the 'climate ambition summit' on Saturday, co-convened by the UN, the UK and France, at which many countries announced strengthened commitments towards addressing climate change.

"The summit has now sent strong signals that more countries and more businesses are ready to take the bold climate action on which our future security and prosperity depend," Guterres said. "Today was an important step forward, but it’s not yet enough. Let’s not forget that we are still on track to an increase of temperature of three degrees at least in the end of the century, which would be catastrophic. The recovery from Covid-19 presents an opportunity to set our economies and societies on a green path in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As we look ahead, the central objective of the United Nations for 2021 is to build a truly global coalition for carbon neutrality."

The climate ambition summit was held on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, which was signed by over 190 countries around the world and aims to limit the rise of global temperature to no more than a 1.5°C about pre-industrial levels. This aim has been widely interpreted as requiring global carbon dioxide emissions to reach 'net-zero' by 2050. According to the United Nations environment programme, meeting the 1.5°C target would require a global reduction of 7.6% in carbon emissions

At the summit, 24 countries announced "new commitments, strategies or plans to reach net zero or carbon neutrality", according to a statement issued by the UK government. This included plans outlined by Finland, Austria and Sweden to achieve 'net zero' well below the 2050 deadline – by 2035 in Finland, 2040 in Austria, and 2045 in Sweden.

The UK, which was co-hosting the summit ahead of the delayed UN climate summit, COP 26, in Glasgow in November 2021, also published an adaptation communication setting out what it is doing to prepare for the effects of climate change at home and to support those facing impacts overseas. The measures outlined include flood prevention schemes, the protection and restoration of forests and wetlands and other "nature-based solutions", and support for green finance.

In relation to the adaptation communication, climate change expert Stacey Collins of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said: "The UK is keen to be seen as a global leader in relation to climate change – not just in terms of limiting climate change, but also by mitigating the unavoidable impacts of it. What is encouraging about this adaptation communication is that it doesn’t just focus on what the UK will do for itself, but it also focuses on what the UK will do to help other, less developed, countries to cope with the effects of climate change. This is the kind of global leadership that is needed at the moment."

The communication follows on from the UK government's recent announcement that it hopes to reduce the UK's emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels – up from the previous 53% reduction target that had been outlined. It also comes in light of the recent publication of the sixth carbon budget, which provides government ministers with advice on the volume of greenhouse gases (GHGs) the UK will be able to emit during the period of 2033 to 2037. The sixth carbon budget is set by the influential Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent, statutory body that advises the UK government and devolved administrations on progress towards meeting climate-related targets.

Collins Stacey Nov_2019

Stacey Collins


It is important, and welcome, that the CCC has taken the initiative in setting out a more tangible, and evidenced-based, route map to deliver on the government’s objectives

According to the CCC, the UK will need to achieve a 78% reduction in its emissions by 2035, compared to 1990 levels, to remain on track to meet its 2050 'net zero' target.

Much would need to change for the CCC's budget to be met, from greater take-up of low-carbon vehicles and boilers to increased dependency on offshore wind and hydrogen power. It would also mean the introduction of a national programme to improve the insulation in buildings, and a 20% reduction in the consumption of high-carbon meat and dairy products by 2030, as well as growing new areas of woodland to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The CCC has urged the government to embrace the recommendations of the report through legislation "as soon as possible".

Collins, said: "As the CCC states 'we don’t reach net zero simply by wishing it'. A common criticism has been that the government has announced various eye-catching initiatives and funding pots, but has provided limited detail on exactly how such targets will be delivered. It is important, and welcome, that the CCC has taken the initiative in setting out a more tangible, and evidenced-based, route map to deliver on the government’s objectives. The big question is whether, and to what extent, the government will embrace the CCC’s report through legislation."

Collins said that an important aspect of the report is that the CCC does not agree with the UK’s current approach of allowing ‘headroom’ for aviation and shipping. The CCC considers that those sectors have significant GHG emissions and to put less pressure on them to reduce their emissions isn’t realistic.

Collins: "The CCC appears to be suggesting that the government is being too soft on the aviation and shipping sector by assuming they can’t achieve 'net zero' in the required time-frames. This is apparent in the government’s recent improved Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which excludes aviation and shipping. The CCC expresses that it is seen as ‘unfair’ on the other sectors that may have to potentially transition harder and faster, in order to offset GHG emissions from shipping and aviation. Surely it has to be right that the aviation and shipping industries are required to embrace the climate change challenge to the same extent as other sectors. Many within those industries already are."

Environment and climate change expert Nick McDonald of Pinsent Masons said that planning policy will have an important role to play in achieving the CCC's recommendations, but said there would be major hurdles to achieving the CCC's goal of all new buildings being 'zero carbon' from 2025.

"The planning system has a significant role to play in ensuring that new buildings take account of the need to decarbonise, and don’t increase the scale of the retrofit problem we already face," McDonald said. "Planning policy is already doing that to some extent, but suffers from various problems which hamper its role – policies are mostly set at the individual council level so there’s a significant degree of divergence between them; updating planning policy to reflect the latest requirements is slow – many councils won’t consult on and adopt a new set of local planning policies before that 2025 date."

"The government is very keen on permitted development rights, and has enacted various changes this year which allow land owners to do much more with their assets, including large scale upwards extensions, and demolition and re-build projects. Climate planning policies don’t touch these projects, and that’s unlikely to change given the government’s clear aim to remove planning regulation, not increase it. However, new build is the smaller issue compared to decarbonising the existing building stock, given all the issues the latter entails," he said.

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