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29 June 2017updated 30 Jun 2017 8:44am

“Neither justifiable nor wise”: Government delay on climate change puts UK at risk

Inaction on climate change impacts both business and health, says new report.

By India Bourke

Low political pressure with increased risk of flooding, overheating and crop decline: such is the forecast ahead if present government action on climate remains unchanged.

The stormy outlook is the latest from the Committee on Climate Change. The committee is responsible for reporting on the UK’s progress towards meeting its emissions targets and adapting to climate impacts. Its 2017 annual report to Parliament says that past advances are at risk of stalling, and continued delays by government are “neither justifiable nor wise”.

It says that two plans require immediate attention. The first, on how the country will reduce emissions across the economy, is a statutory requirement and is already overdue. The second, on how the government plans to strengthen the UK’s National Adaptation programme, is due in the first half of 2018.

The committee has recommendations for both programmes. But the government must “speed up” its own response, Committee Chair, Lord Deben, told journalists on Tuesday. “We are fighting a battle and it has to be won quickly,” he said. Not least so that the eocnomy is not put at further risk.

The report is clear on the link between rising emissions and climate change: “The climate is changing and human actions are causing the changes.” It also dispels claims that acting on climate change will cause the economy to slow. GDP has in fact grown 65 per cent since 1990, while energy bills have fallen since the 2008 Climate Change Act was passed.

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So why the delay by government? “The events of the past year have been, by almost any measure, exceptional,” said Committee Chair Lord Deben. Yet he also stressed that it is Parliament’s duty to ensure that the subject is not made a “hostage” to circumstance.

Here are seven of the ways the committee’s findings raise cause for concern:

  1. The Committee says the UK is on track to miss the Climate Change Act’s legally binding targets for emissions reduction (including a 57 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 by 2030). 
  2. Biodiversity targets for protecting the vulnerable natural environment are also set to be missed, with only 25 per cent of land habitats in good condition – instead of the required 50 per cent by 2020.
  3. Without action to adapt buildings to climate change, heat-related deaths are expected triple to 7,000 per year by mid century. The Committee’s 2015 recommendations on the subject have yet to be enacted.
  4. Insultation levels have been allowed to crash by 90 per cent since 2012, despite the contribution energy efficiency makes to bringing down both emmissions and bills.
  5. The Committee sees the deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage as an “urgent priority”, if the 2050 emissions target is to be met. Yet there is presently no strategy in place, after the government cancelled a commericalisation programme in November 2015.
  6. The risks of flooding are “still not being adequately managed”, says the committee, with the number of high risk households expected to increase to over 200,000 by 2039.
  7. Transport emissions were higher in 2016 than any other years since 2009  – and the report warns that “progress will not continue without new policies”.

Lord Deben is confident that the government will take measures to address these worrying trends: “The law is quite clear, and that is that once the parliament has passed a budget, it is then necessary for the government to publish its plan as to how it’s going to meet that budget and it’s got to do so as rapidly as possible.” It will then be the Committee’s responsibility to assess whether the proposed policies are sufficient.

Nor does he see the government’s promises to reduce regulation as an inevitable obstacle to progress. “As long as the red rape challenge concentrates on the nonsenses (and I can give you a long list of nonsenses),  that allows us to have more regulation in those areas where it is necessary,” he told the New Statesman.

Yet others point out the government’s uncomfortable record of stalling and backwards steps: “The progress we’re seeing now is the result of policies enacted under the coalition, and it’s clear that since the 2015 election the Government has been treading water,” says Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

What is certain is that the report’s recommendations are many and time left to meet targets is short: the time for change on climate policy is now.

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