Mind the emissions gap

The government urgently needs to publish carbon-reduction policies if it is to meet emissions targets. Hywel Davies reports

The government’s Clean Growth Strategy sets out the next steps to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change, and is required by the Climate Change Act.

The Act commits the UK to an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. This is to be achieved through five-yearly carbon budgets, set by the government using the advice of the independent Committee for Climate Change.

The fifth carbon budget was set in June 2016, and the Clean Growth Strategy – originally due out later that year, but finally published in October 2017 – is the plan for delivering it.

In January, the committee published its analysis of the strategy, which it said was ambitious, but did not go far enough. Further urgent work is needed to develop the plans and proposals, and supplement them with additional measures, if the UK is to meet its legally binding carbon targets in the 2020s and 2030s.

We have made good progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the Act was passed in 2008. Emissions fell by 42% between 1990 and 2016 – faster than the average rate of reduction in the G7 group of industrial nations.

The latest strategy commits to further action on delivering the fourth (2023-27) and fifth (2028-32) carbon budgets, as we work towards the 80% target for 2050. It reaffirms the UK’s desire to remain at the forefront of tackling climate change globally. The committee states that this makes it all the more important that the UK carbon budgets are met through domestic action to reduce emissions, which is the basis on which the targets were set.

Significant gaps remain between the current reductions that will be delivered through existing and new policies – including those set out in the strategy – and the targets set by the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, according to the committee. It estimates the shortfall at around 10-65 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) – a significant margin.

The committee recommends that the government urgently firms up policies and proposals in the Clean Growth Strategy. It wants to see more detail about: the phase-out of sales of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040; the increase in home energy efficiency by 2035; the improvement in energy efficiency standards of new buildings; the phase-out of installations of the most polluting fossil-fuel heating in homes and businesses off the gas grid; the generation of 85% of the UK’s electricity from low-carbon sources by 2032; the improvement of the energy efficiency of UK businesses and industry by 2030; and the deployment of carbon capture and storage technology at scale in the UK in the 2030s. All these will have to be delivered in full and on time to realise the required emissions savings.

 “The committee will monitor progress through annual reports to parliament”

The committee also wants the government to develop and implement new policies to close the ‘emissions gap’ to the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. It identifies a particular risk of not meeting the fourth carbon budget, which starts in 2023, and has called for urgent domestic measures. These could include greater near-term improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings, especially in able-to-pay households. The committee also wants steps taken to ensure a greater proportion of heating from heat networks is from low carbon sources.

Given the large gap that already exists to meet the fourth carbon budget, and the 15-month delay in publishing the Clean Growth Strategy, the next steps need to happen pressingly.

Urgency is stressed throughout the report; defining the additional carbon-reduction policies must be pursued with vigour, urgency and sustained commitment. The report identifies significant delivery risks with new and existing policies to reduce emissions – such as timely completion of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station – and calls for them to be actively managed.

It notes the importance of this in the context of the Paris Agreement, which the UK and 172 other countries have ratified, and which will require increased efforts to reduce future emissions.

While the government has proposed milestones to measure progress, the committee recommends additional benchmarks to ensure the required emissions reductions are delivered in time. It will monitor progress through annual reports to parliament.

The UK may be leaving the EU, but the committee’s report effectively confirms the view that there is no scope for scrapping energy efficiency policies and legislation that originated in Brussels. This will merely increase the size of the gap to be filled. The challenge for services engineers is to identify how we might deliver the energy efficient homes and buildings we need.


  1. An independent assessment of the UK’s Clean Growth Strategy: From ambition to action

Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE.