The UK government’s COP26 to-do list

The 26th United Nations climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow this autumn will be the first opportunity for countries to review their progress since the global Paris Agreement came into force.

As the first G7 country to adopt a legally binding target of net zero by 2050, the UK leads the world in climate ambition. Our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement commits us to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030 (against a 1990 baseline), and our additional commitment to adopt the Sixth Carbon Budget from the Climate Change Committee means that this will rise to almost 80% by 2035.

But the reality of the UK’s progress on emissions cuts is lagging behind the ambition. As we prepare to host this crucial climate conference, what should we be doing to prove that our goals are realistic?

Implement a new scheme to upgrade building stock

The latest progress report from the Climate Change Committee says that there has been “almost none of the necessary progress in upgrading the building stock”. 28% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from heating, lighting and cooling buildings, and there is plenty of room for improvement. The UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe, and even new-builds aren’t as energy-efficient as they could be: in 2018, less than 1% of new homes were found to have an EPC rating of A.

Setting high standards for new buildings is important, but we can’t build our way out of the problem: 80% of the homes we will be living in by 2050 have already been built. To eliminate emissions from buildings, we need an ambitious retrofit scheme, one that covers commercial and public buildings as well as homes.

Halt the road-building programme

The spring 2020 Budget allocated £27bn for building new roads, despite the fact that the Climate Change Committee warns this could be “potentially incompatible with the overall need to reduce emissions” and recommends measures to reduce travel demand instead. The Welsh government has already frozen all its new road-building projects because of its own climate commitments, saying it will spend less money on encouraging driving and more on investing in alternatives.

Environmental campaigners Transport Action Network have taken central government to court over its road investment strategy, arguing that it is incompatible with the legally binding commitment to net zero by 2050. A ruling on the case is awaited, but in the meantime, the court of public opinion may already have reached a verdict on whether the UK can call itself a climate leader while incentivising more car use.

Incentivise greener farming

To meet our net zero goal by 2050, agricultural emissions need to fall by about 30% from 2019, and our use of land needs to switch from a net greenhouse gas emitter to a net carbon sink. This means switching away from fossil fuel use in farming, and repurposing about a tenth of agricultural land so that it can be used to absorb carbon through restoring peatland, planting trees and so on.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive, which comes in next year, seems to be focused on incentivising farmers to improve soil quality, assess wildlife habitats and improve livestock welfare. While these issues are important, the UK needs an agricultural policy that is focused on the transition to low-emission farming.

Encourage a greener diet

By 2030, we should be consuming 20% less meat and dairy, and the amount of food we waste should be half of what it is today. We should also be importing less air-freighted food and trying to eat more seasonally. But there are currently no government-led schemes aimed at making our eating habits more climate-friendly. April’s ban on “buy one, get one free” deals was about tackling obesity rather than food waste, and so only applies to foods high in salt, sugar and fat. Unfortunately, these are the foods least likely to be wasted in the first place, because they tend to be much less perishable and eaten soon after purchase.

The National Food Strategy, published last week, recommended that the government set a target to reduce meat consumption by 30% over the next ten years. Unfortunately, the fixation on obesity came to the fore again, and the possibility of a sugar tax grabbed headlines and politicians’ attention instead.

Cut aviation emissions today

Transport secretary Grant Shapps spoke of “guilt-free flying” at last week’s launch of the Transport Decarbonisation Strategy. The plan is for the sector to achieve drastic emissions cuts through sustainable aircraft fuel, more efficient aircraft and new technologies such as hydrogen and electric aircraft. But with the technology available today, the only credible way to reduce aviation emissions is to reduce flights. The Climate Change Committee recommends that the UK encourages modal shift by heavily taxing flights and subsidising trains, as well as using taxation to encourage less business travel. It also says that there should be no net expansion of UK airport capacity unless the sector is on track to outperform its emissions reduction trajectory (which is very unlikely).

Pre-Covid, statistics for England showed that 1% of people take nearly a fifth of all flights, while in a typical year nearly half the population does not fly at all. A frequent flyer levy would be a way to start cutting aviation emissions straight away, while only adversely affecting a tiny minority.

Accelerate the transition away from petrol and diesel

The switch to electric vehicles is a key part of the government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, and is supposed to save the UK economy 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) by 2050. The government has already announced that no more petrol or diesel cars will be sold after 2030, and is offering various incentives to encourage take-up of electric vehicles, but achieving cuts of the required magnitude requires more action.

The Climate Change Committee recommends a national strategy for charging infrastructure and faster roll-out of chargepoint provision – which the car manufacturing sector is also calling for. There should also be strong consumer incentives to produce zero-emission vehicles and disincentives to continue driving polluting vehicles.

The COP26 President, former business secretary Alok Sharma, has described the conference as “our last hope of keeping 1.5 degrees alive” and “our best chance of building a brighter future”. But our preparations for this crucial conference should show that we are acting on the gaps in our own climate strategy.