The implications that flow from the upgrading of the UK's 2030 carbon target are hard to underestimate - the economy is about to change for the better
The plan is starting to come together.
Yesterday morning the Climate Change Committee (CCC) took the surprise move of pulling forward the release of a crucial component of its imminent new report on the UK's medium-term carbon targets. CCC chair Lord Deben wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to recommend the UK's emissions reduction target for 2030 should be upgraded to "at least" 68 per cent against 1990 levels, thus lifting the lid on one of the worst kept secrets in climate circles.
The change in timing may have been modest - the full report on the CCC's recommendations for the sixth carbon budget is expected next week - but it was still significant.
The government was keen to incorporate a new emissions target for 2030 as the headline for its updated national climate action plan, or Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which it wanted to announce ahead of the December 12th Climate Action Summit that will mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement. But it needed to consider the CCC's recommendation before publicly announcing its goal. The letter from CCC chair Lord Deben cleared the path for Boris Johnson to approve a new target. Within hours he had done just that.
Reports had suggested Johnson was considering either a 68 per cent target or a marginally more ambitious goal of 69 per cent for 2030, but the fact he opted for the lower goal should in no way diminish the huge implications of this new target for green businesses, the wider UK economy, and global climate efforts.
A 68 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 is a genuinely world-leading target. It requires an acceleration in the rate of UK decarbonisation of around 50 per cent compared to the previous target. That is quite the undertaking. The investments, policies, and priorities that should flow from that target will reshape the UK economy for the better.
Such a sizeable strengthening of the current target will also be noted by climate diplomats around the world. It says to all those other nations mulling their own medium term climate goals and sweeping NDC plans that the UK is set to accelerate its decarbonisation efforts over the next decade and is opting for a target in line with scientific recommendations. It should unlock similar commitments from other major polluters in the coming weeks. And such emissions pledges will send clear policy and investment signals that businesses around the world are already responding to.
As Climate Action Tracker this week noted, if governments deliver on their new net zero emission pledges the world would be on track for 2.1C of warming - it is a massive 'if' and 2.1C is still a dangerous level of warming, but suddenly a credible path towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and a stabilised climate is being mapped out. The UK's new 2030 target represents another step forward.
Of course, there will be those who say the UK should be moving faster still, and given our historic emissions and the scale of the climate threat you can make a very plausible case for a bolder target. But the CCC has a good track record of proposing targets that hit the sweet spot between scientifically credible, technically feasible, and economically attractive. A 68 per cent cut in emissions within a decade would be a hugely ambitious and stretching goal that would require the transformation of large parts of the economy to deliver.
And it is here that the new target becomes really interesting.
The government should have moved faster to introduce more ambitious medium term targets after last year adopting a net zero target, it should have announced a much bigger green stimulus package in the summer, and it should have fast-tracked all the various crucial climate policy decisions that have been stuck in the pipeline for months. Every month that passes matters.
But we are where we are, and with the new NDC target there are signs the government has finally got the sequencing in place. The confirmation of a new 2030 target - a target that must be met within just two parliaments, by the way - will now inform all the critical and crunchy policy decisions that need to be made in the coming weeks and months.
Number 10 now has its 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Strategy in place, but a new 2030 target provides an explicit benchmark for that broad brush strategy to be measured against. As such, the imminent Energy White Paper, new green building standards, and farming subsidy reforms will struggle to retain any credibility if they fail to explain how to sharply increase the pace of clean energy deployment, energy efficiency upgrades, and carbon sink development.
If the government wants to slash emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 it would need to repeat the clear market signal provided by the end-of-the-decade sales ban on new internal combustion engine cars and vans in pretty much every sector. That would be the new bar and all Ministers would know they have to clear it. The recent tweaks to the Treasury Green Book and promise of a National Infrastructure Bank with a net zero remit would suddenly be seen in a new light. Sixty-eight per cent should become a factor in every policy decision from Whitehall to Holyrood via every local authority. Get those decisions right and the lesson of the past decade of rapid decarbonisation progress is that businesses, investors, and innovators will respond positively. As my colleague Michael Holder observed this morning, we are about to all learn a lot about heat pumps.
Of course, there will still be political trade offs to make and short term setbacks along the way. Meanwhile, it remains essential that Number 10 gets a grip on the governance structures and enforcement mechanisms required to ensure all parts of government really do start to prioritise such an ambitious agenda. Most importantly, as reports from both the National Audit Office and Green Alliance argued this morning, such a bold decarbonisation target cannot be met unless spending and policy priorities change. Government cannot rely on clean tech innovation alone to meet the new target. It cannot bolt a green economy onto continued investment in dirty infrastructure and hope a net zero emission economy magically materialises. The coincidence of Johnson's confirmation of a new carbon target with news of cuts to rail infrastructure funding is a glaring example of the continued disconnect within government between climate rhetoric and low carbon action.
But as the Prime Minister's pen hovers over both the letter responding to the CCC and the official NDC submission to the UN he should know he is also signing off on a series of decisions that can no longer be ducked, essentially he is approving the animating project for his government and his country for the next decade and beyond. Because once those missives are signed, the serious business of finalising the plan to deliver on the new targets simply has to become his most urgent economic priority.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.