The public supports UK climate leadership

Professor Sam Fankhauser, Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change

Last month, the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, Claire Perry, announced that she would be asking the Committee on Climate Change to review the UK’s long-term target for greenhouse gas emissions after the publication of a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this autumn.

The review will consider how to align the UK’s legislation with the Paris Agreement, which has goals to limit global warming to well below 2°C and to reduce net annual global annual emissions of greenhouse gases to zero before the end of the century.

It will take account of the findings of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, which is due to be published in October 2018.

The UK’s current emissions target, contained in the Climate Change Act, is to reduce its annual emissions by at least 80% by 2050 compared with 1990.

The Minister’s announcement coincide with the release of a new poll, commissioned by Bright Blue, showing strong public support for the UK’s continued leadership on climate change.

The results of the survey showed that 63% of UK adults agreed that “the UK should be a global leader in tackling climate change”. In the under 40 age group, 66% of adults agreed.

The survey also showed a significant majority (64%) of the public back a reduction in the UK’s annual emissions to zero “in the next few decades”. The same percentage of the under-40 age group also agreed.

In fact, the survey revealed that more ambitious action on climate change would also be popular with current Conservative voters: 56% supported UK climate leadership and 58% backed a target to achieve net zero emissions over the next few decades.

It is worth noting that the UK Conservative Party has a good track record of action on climate change, even though it is often seen as an issue of the left.

Ten years ago it was a Labour government that stewarded the Climate Change Act through Parliament. However the Conservatives were instrumental in passing the most ambitious law possible.

And most of the implementation of the Act has since been carried out while the Conservative Party has been in government, following David Cameron’s election in 2010.

The Conservatives have proved during the last eight years that the UK can grow its economy while also meeting its legal targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

The most recent official figures show that our annual emissions were 43 per cent lower in 2017 than in 1990, while our GDP increased by 71 per cent over the same period. This means that the UK now uses three times less carbon to produce a £1 of GDP compared with 28 years ago.

Much of this progress has been made possible by the UK’s Climate Change Act, which enshrines legally-binding targets for emissions reductions in law in the UK.

Our new study of the impact of the Climate Change Act over the last 10 years shows that Parliamentarians, senior civil servants and industry experts think that the Act has been a success but that there is also room for reform.

The new report also points out that there is still strong support for the Climate Change Act in all political parties, partly because polls like the one commissioned by Bright Blue consistently show high levels of public backing, particularly among young voters, for action to tackle greenhouse gases.

However, the Conservatives’ track record in government is not perfect. There is a growing gap between the targets the UK Climate Change Act sets in law and the UK’s current projections for emissions reductions. The UK is not currently on track to meet its statutory carbon targets for the mid-2020s and early 2030s (otherwise known as the 4th and 5th carbon budgets).

The current Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, published in October 2017, outlines the policies that are intended to meet the 4th and 5th carbon budgets. But analysis by the independent experts on the Committee on Climate Change shows that the policies and proposals set out in the Strategy are inadequate, and UK annual emissions are projected to overshoot the 4th carbon budget by 64 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent, and the 5th carbon budget will be exceeded by 116 million tonnes.

In our study one critical respondent told us that the Government may support the Act but “they got rid of almost all the policies designed to implement it”.

The ability and willingness of the Conservative Government to close the gap between emissions targets and policy delivery is perhaps the most tangible test of its commitment to climate change action.

The Conservative Government has a strong mandate to continue to implement the Climate Change Act, which it promised in last year’s election manifesto. Minster Perry’s recent announcement is the latest signal of the Conservatives’ commitment to climate action. It could win the Party votes as well – but now they must deliver.

Sam Fankhauser is Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, both at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was a member of the Committee on Climate Change between 2008 and 2016 and served on the Adaptation Sub-Committee from 2009 to 2015.