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Tackling Climate Change in the UK: What needs to be done in 2016

Posted on 16 February 2016

After experiencing one of the warmest Decembers on record, the adverse effects of the higher temperatures this winter are already being felt across the country. With flooding across the UK dominating headlines this season, daffodils already in full bloom and ski resorts in the French Alps boasting green meadows rather than snow covered pistes, some of the potential impacts of our warming world seem more apparent than ever.

Back in December, the UN climate talks in Paris resulted in 195 nations pledging they’ll attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to an amount that limits the global average temperature rise to ‘well below’ 2˚C compared to pre-industrial levels, and that nations should “pursue efforts” to stay below 1.5°C. Despite this progress on a global scale, individual nations are now required to increase their efforts to cut their carbon emissions which may require more challenging measures to be introduced.

To assess whether the UK is on track to meet its target of reducing carbon emissions in 2050 by at least 80% on 1990 levels, we spoke to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) about the challenges faced by the power sector, the costs of not taking action and what needs to be done in the UK in 2016 and beyond to ensure the UK plays its part in tackling climate change.

What do you think needs to be done in the power sector to reach the goal of a low-carbon energy mix of 75% by 2030 and what are the biggest challenges to overcome?

In power, we see the need for the carbon intensity of generation to fall from around 450gCO2/kWh now (2014) to below 100gCo2/kWh in 2030. That means low-carbon generation reaching a share of around 75% of generation.

There are a number of different mixes of low-carbon generation (renewables, nuclear, fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage – CCS) that could achieve that – though prospects for CCS now look more difficult with the cancelling of demonstration funding. Other than revisiting that decision, the key thing for the Government is to clarify policy direction for the 2020s – and key within that is extending funding for low-carbon generation under the Levy Control Framework to at least 2025. Investors need a clear long-term signal that there will be a future market for low-carbon contracts.

What can individuals do at home to support improvements in energy efficiency in the power sector?

Opportunities will differ for different people. If you are considering switching energy supplier, you can look at the mix of generation they use. In relation to your own use of electricity, when buying new appliances it makes sense to look at the energy efficiency label. If you use electricity for heating, check your home is insulated to the highest standards.

In June 2015, the Committee’s Progress Report assessed how well the UK is doing when it comes to reducing emissions (mitigation) and preparing for climate change (adaptation). The report highlighted five key recommendations (covering Electricity, Buildings, Transport, Infrastructure and Land and Water Management) that need to be addressed in order to meet the target to reduce UK emissions in 2050 by at least 80% on 1990 levels.

Why were these areas specifically chosen?

The Progress Report covers requirements for actions across all sectors. In fact, there were a total of 35 recommendations across mitigation and 36 for adaptation. The five we highlighted were chosen on the basis of their significance (for example, in terms of the scale of emissions at stake) and the urgency of action.

What are the key changes that need to happen over the next decade to cut carbon emissions?

Continued investment in low-carbon generation, improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings and the start of a move towards low-carbon heat, continued improvement in the carbon-intensity of new cars and vans, and development of the new market for electric vehicles.

What policies does the Government need to implement in the fifth carbon budget to address these recommendations?

The first thing is to legislate the recommended fifth carbon budget. This is an important signal of intent to businesses, investors and consumers. Beyond that, a range of new and strengthened policies will be required. Particular priorities are to send a signal to low-carbon investors in the power sector by extending the Levy Control Framework, developing an action plan to address the significant shortfall in low-carbon heat and link this with longer-term plans for energy efficiency, plan for stretching EU targets for new car and van CO2 beyond 2020 and maintain support for electric vehicles.

With many of the recommendations requiring a lead time, or a long time to carry them out, how important is it that the Government implement them as soon as possible?

The key message in our 2015 Progress Report was that early action will be needed to keep UK emissions on track. Specifically, we noted that many policies designed to reduce emissions come to an end over the course of this Parliament. Recent Government announcements have tended to add to the uncertainties. The Government has said that it will set out a new emissions reduction plan, addressing how it intends to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, towards the end of 2016. We will review what progress has been made in our 2016 Progress Report to Parliament.

In what ways will individuals notice/benefit from the proposed changes?

There are some up-front costs to taking action. We have estimated that support for low-carbon investment in the power sector will make up around £105 of a typical household energy bill in 2020. However, our recommendations for carbon budgets are designed to be on the lowest cost path to our emission reduction targets. Delaying action and having to do more later on will be more expensive in the longer-term.

As a part of international action to reduce emissions, we will benefit from reduced impacts of climate change. But there are wider benefits beyond that – for example, through reduced air pollution and other health benefits.

What economic problems will arise if a strong response to reduce carbon emissions isn’t carried out?

First, not taking action internationally means much higher costs from the effects of unmitigated climate change. Second, delaying action in the UK and thinking we can do more later on is actually a higher cost path overall, and puts achievement of our targets at greater risk.

In the Committee’s advice on the fifth carbon budget, it says to reach the 2050 target and to continue reducing carbon emissions more challenging measures will need to be introduced. What are the more challenging measures that will need to be introduced and who will be affected by them?

Emissions reductions to date have come from several sources. Energy efficiency has been improved in buildings and transport, there has been a shift towards lower-carbon fuels in electricity generation, and there have been reductions in non-CO2 gases, in particular because less waste has been sent to landfill.

These will be important to continue in future but will not be enough. They will have to be supplemented by more challenging measures, including switching to low-carbon energy sources in sectors beyond electricity generation. That means a switch towards electric vehicles – making up the majority of new car and van purchases in 2030, low-carbon heat to provide heat supply for around one in seven homes in 2030, greater take-up of solid wall insulation and reduced agriculture emissions.

The expected cost of meeting the proposed fifth carbon budget in 2030 is estimated to cost up to £3 billion, who will bear the brunt of the cost?

Our estimates indicate that most of that cost is incurred in the power sector. There are policy choices for the Government as to who bears the cost – it will be the electricity bill payer under current policy choices. But there is scope for energy efficiency measures to reduce energy use and energy bills for those households that install them.

For the fuel poor, it is important that there should be a targeting of these measures towards them. We have shown in previous work that with effective targeting of energy efficiency measures, overall numbers in fuel poverty can fall even as costs of supporting low-carbon investment increase.

What are the wider benefits to climate change action and how can they offset the cost of implementing the changes in the long run?

We have estimated the total annual cost of meeting the fifth carbon budget in 2030 is less than 1% of GDP (not taking action is likely to become much more costly). Using government valuation methods, we have estimated wider benefits to climate action through reduced air pollution and other health and environmental benefits to be worth around 0.1-0.6% of GDP in 2030. Our scenarios also reduce imports of oil and gas compared to a scenario with no climate action, reducing our exposure to volatile international fuel prices.

As a Co-operative Energy customer, you can choose exactly which sources your energy comes from for no extra cost using our User Chooser option. So, if you want to ensure all your energy is generated from renewable resources, you can do so by customising your personal energy mix in our Energy Hub. You can even decide where in the country your energy comes from, allowing you to support local renewable energy projects in your area. 

Co-operative Energy is committed to tackling climate change. Our target is to obtain 75% of our energy from renewable sources in the next three years. We have already taken the first step towards achieving our goal and have ceased purchasing energy that is generated from coal fired power stations. 

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