Government confirms zero-emission Paris goal to be enshrined in law

Madeleine Cuff
clock • 5 min read

Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom says net zero Paris goal will be written into UK law following advice from the Committee on Climate Change in the autumn

The government has promised to enshrine a key Paris commitment to deliver a 'net-zero' emission economy into UK law, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom told the House of Commons yesterday.

Responding to calls by former Labour leader Ed Miliband for a new legislative goal in support of the Paris Agreement, Leadsom said the government is seeking to "build on the momentum of Paris" and will produce a plan for enshrining the net-zero emissions target into law later this year.

The announcement means the UK's legal target to reduce emissions will be tightened from its current goal of an 80 per cent reduction against 1990 levels by 2050 under the Climate Change Act to a net-zero target by the second half of the century, bringing it in line with international pledges made in Paris in December.

"The government believes that we will need to take the step of enshrining the Paris goal for net zero emissions in UK law," Leadsom told MPs. "The question is not whether but how we do it. There is an important set of questions to be answered before we do. The Committee on Climate Change is looking at the implications of the commitments in Paris and has said it will report in the Autumn. We will want to consider carefully the recommendations of the Committee."

The UK is already bound by the Climate Change Act (CCA) to reduce its emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, based on a 1990 baseline. However, a law requiring the UK to reduce its emissions to net zero represents a substantial increase in ambition, effectively mandating the decarbonisation of hard-to-reach sectors of the economy such as agriculture, heat and transportation.

The decision comes in response to a key amendment tabled by Miliband, which called for the Paris target to be added to UK law via the Energy Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament. The amendment won cross-party backing from MPs and follows months of campaigning from Miliband for the government to enshrine a higher emissions target into UK law.

Miliband welcomed Leadsom's remarks and urged other countries to follow the UK's lead. "It is the right thing to do because the science demands it, it makes economic sense and will build momentum in the fight against climate change," he said. "It is essential we build on the success of the Paris agreement and do not squander it and I hope other countries will no follow the example of the UK."

The move follows nearly 200 countries backing the Paris Agreement last autumn, which included commitments to keep average temperature increases to "well below" 2C and a goal to achieve a "balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases" this century.

The commitment from the government comes as leading businesses today called on Chancellor George Osborne to reference the Paris Agreement in tomorrow's budget address and deliver a set of policies that help drive low carbon growth.

Green groups are likely to welcome the commitment to deliver a net zero emission target in law. However, a number of green economy observers also expressed frustration last night as the government blocked a series of Energy Bill amendments designed to close existing carbon target loopholes and ease subsidy cuts for clean energy projects.  

For example, an amendment backed by lawyers ClientEarth and environmental NGO Sandbag, which sought to address a "loophole" in the Climate Change Act which prevents carbon budgets from including emissions from all industries, was blocked yesterday.

According to ClientEarth, the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) currently exempts certain industries, notably including the power sector, from carbon accounting - meaning carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act apply only to just over half of all emissions. ClientEarth argues this runs counter to the intention of the Climate Change Act and must be addressed to drive further emissions reductions, especially given on-going concerns about an oversupply of carbon allowances within the ETS.

However, addressing Parliament Leadsom said while the government acknowledges carbon accounting rules under the CCA require "careful consideration", now was "not the right time" to make any changes as government focus is on setting the fifth carbon budget.

She warned any changes to carbon accounting rules would "threaten serious delay" to setting the next carbon budget, which spans the period 2028-2032 and is due to be confirmed in June.

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton said the decision not to proceed with accounting changes because of timing issues was "disappointing". "What better time could there be?" he said in a statement. "The UK's currently setting its fifth carbon budget. It would be much more disruptive to change the system once the budget's been set - so we're doubtful the government would do so."

The news comes as a new study by Dutch consultancy CE Delft reveals EU industry made €24bn in windfall profits through the EU ETS between 2008 and 2014, with cement, petrochemical and steel industries recording the highest gains. The profit windfall was due to a glut of free tradeable allowances, according to Delft.

Meanwhile, a separate Energy Bill amendment to postpone the earlier closure of the Renewables Obligation for onshore wind projects was also defeated yesterday, alongside another proposal to tweak the grace period for wind projects where planning authorities had committed to award them planning permission before June 2015.

This article is part of BusinessGreen's Road to Paris hub, hosted in association with PwC.

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