The UK cannot delay the adoption of more ambitious climate targets

The Committee on Climate Change should demand alignment with the Paris goals


The world has warmed by one degree, and the mercury keeps rising. Even if nations meet all the pledges they’ve made so far, warming would still increase to three degrees.

And so, faced with ever-increasing climate impacts, the world’s nations have agreed to take greater action. They have ratified last year’s Paris Climate Agreement. Its aim is to keep temperature rises ‘well below’ two degrees, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

This 1.5 versus two degrees versus three degrees stuff really matters.

To give just one of a myriad reasons why, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says today that the numbers of people affected globally by coastal flooding at 2°C, 3°C and 4°C “are a factor of three, eight and 13 higher than at 1.5°C, respectively.

So what should the UK do? As the CCC also made clear today, our current climate targets ‘are not aimed at limiting global temperatures to as low a level in the Paris Agreement.’

Pretty clear eh? The next step should be to tighten our targets, right? To reflect the Paris Agreement’s goal for keep to 1.5 degrees, not the 50:50 chance of two degrees our current targets are based on. Yes?

No. The CCC’s first main conclusion is that we should ‘not set new UK emissions targets now’.

What, stay as we are? Faced with what John Barrett from the Priestley Centre for Climate Change described as ‘the need for emergency, rapid, deeply transformative change’, the CCC’s answer is ‘don’t align the UK with the Paris goals?

The CCC offer an argument for this, but for me it does not stack up.

They argue that the UK already has tough targets, and — critically — we are way off-track to meet them. The priority they say is to ‘vigorously pursue’ measures to get us back on course. Concentrate on the targets we’ve got.

This is, in part, excellent advice from the CCC — the Government has an urgent job to do far more to help people have energy-efficient homes, to make our transport sector low-carbon, to continue the switch away from coal and into renewables. It really is urgent that the Government steps-up.

But this is not an argument against also making it crystal-clear that the Paris goals require far stronger and faster action than our current targets.

If politicians do not see how urgent climate change is, or how much the UK approach needs to change, they will continue to take actions that make climate impacts worse.

Just last week the Government overturned local democracy and gave the green-light to fracking in Lancashire. Next week the all the rumours point towards the Government giving the go-ahead to Heathrow.

Building a new fossil fuel industry and allowing the continual expansion of aviation are incompatible with the Paris goals, but the UK Government can maintain the pretence that all is fine because the current climate targets appear to contain wriggle-room – the idea that sectors or projects can heavily increase emissions, because other sectors can take up the slack. There is no slack.

The CCC has published three reports today. As usual they are full of sensible, pragmatic, excellent advice on how to cut emissions, and why doing so is good for people, jobs and the economy, as well as the environment.

They stress the need for action now. All this is good. It is allied to a clear, positive story unfolding on climate change globally. Renewable energy is rocketing, and its costs are plummeting. A clean energy transformation has begun, and it will accelerate faster than politicians realise.

But will it accelerate fast enough to hold off the worst of climate change? It needs politicians to stop backing 20th century coal, gas and oil companies, and stop holding back progress of clean technologies. Seeing the grave urgency would help them do that. Politicians in the UK and abroad need to hear it loud, long and clear that preventing the worst climate change now needs a massively ramped up programme of action, beyond existing targets.

The CCC had the opportunity to say that today, and did not take it. There are not that many opportunities left.

Simon Bullock is a senior Campaigner, policy and Research co-ordinator at Friends of the Earth. Follow him on Twitter.

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