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The United Kingdom, as the incoming global Climate Conference President, was one of the first countries to announce that it would commit to a net-zero target by 2050.

Net-Zero emissions, also known as “climate neutrality,” is reached when “any remaining human-caused GHG emissions are balanced out by removing GHGs from the atmosphere[.]” The global emphasis on net zero comes from the Paris Climate Agreement.

For the purposes of what was adopted in the UK, [n]et-zero is formulated in law as cutting greenhouse gas emissions to “at least 100% below 1990 levels by 2050.

In this article, we explore whether the UK is showing leadership through its efforts to achieve this ‘net zero’ target as well as the criticisms from experts on climate change. We ask the question: is the upcoming COP President leading by example, or is this a case of another climate laggard? 

The pandemic helped, but what next?

In the midst of the pandemic, 2020 was actually a great year for emissions cuts in the UK. 

Their GHG emissions were cut by 51% below 1990 levels, meaning that they’re half way to achieving their target of net-zero by 2050, and still with 29 years to go.

The number one  reason for this was the tremendous drop in oil use, accounting for 60% of the UK’s overall reduction. The decline in petrol and diesel sales and domestic aviation contributed to this fall in oil demand. Moreover, we saw the largest reductions in miles driven in cars during the first three quarters of 2020. 

The second reason for the reduction was the drop in gas use,  primarily due to lower gas-fired electricity generation. In this case, warmer weather (probably caused by global warming) led to this decrease, as there were fewer days that households relied on heating during this time. 

Additionally, the UK has made major leaps in generating renewable electricity, so much that renewables surpassed fossil fuel use for the first time. For a whopping sixty seven days between April and June, the country did not depend on coal at all.  

The Covid pandemic has definitely sped up the UK’s progress in most of these sectors, however one needs to question, to what extent much of these reductions will be reversed post pandemic. 

No doubt, many across the UK will go back to driving to work and the country lacks policies that would see significant changes to shift transport away from its dependence on fossil fuels. Further, despite the vaccinations, those going back to work will be more hesitant to utilize public transportation until the fear of Covid has passed. 

In addition, one-third of the gas fall was due to covid restrictions, as many buildings were closed during the lockdowns. These buildings will obviously reopen post pandemic. 

Challenges ahead for the UK

Civil society in the UK has been concerned that the next half of these emissions will not only be the hardest to cut, but that the UK will see an uptick in GHG emissions as things begin to open back up.

 

Experts have also expressed concerns that the recent budget announced in March 2021 is insufficient to tackle climate change and to meet the country’s 2050 goal.

 

A recent report from the Institute of Government identifies a number of problems, including a lack of coordinated policies, failure to gain public consent for measures, and a lack of engineering expertise and delivery capability, all which could prevent the UK from meeting its goals. 

Weak coordination across the UK government is recognized as a root problem contributing to a lack of coordinated policies. 

Moreover, decarbonizing the entire economy requires action in every sector. 

The report recommends that the government set out a sector-by-sector plan on how to achieve emissions reductions, which includes a plan on how to go about funding the transition. It also calls on the UK Government to put in place a tax strategy supporting net zero, as currently the country lacks a solid tax policy to aid in achieving the target. Furthermore, it is important to enhance the smooth transition to electric vehicles and put in place measures to hold the government to account in its commitment.

Technical expertise is also a major area identified as inadequate to achieve the target. The report identified that the UK government does not have the best engineering experts on board to assist with achieving net-zero. The latter is extremely important for implementation. Renowned experts need to be sought out and brought in if we are to see a real change.  

And as if these challenges aren’t enough.

The UK now faces two climate related lawsuits.

A group of students are suing the government for violating their human rights by failing to act effectively in the climate crisis and not doing enough to get to the 2050 net zero goal, and in another legal action, the UK Government is being sued for their role in financing the oil industry with public money.

The UK also has a heavy reliance on bioenergy, which to many appears to be an environmentally and climate friendly way forward, but is becoming increasingly known as another form of “dirty energy”. 

Currently, the UK is the “top importer of wood for dirty biomass energy in the region” and utilizes bioenergy to meet its reduction targets. 

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a report that identify bioenergy as a fake climate solution which will is highly detrimental to biodiversity and climate change in the long run. 

Get the people involved and become a climate leader

Polls taken in the UK have illustrated that the public is aware of climate change concerns.

To become a real leader on climate change, the UK government needs to be more engaged with citizens, not only to give the public a raw assessment of the changes needed to reach net-zero, but by working with them to create effective policies tailored to local concerns, especially given that achieving net-zero emissions will require the people’s participation in changing their lifestyles.

The UK has its work cut out and if it is to be seen as  a role model at COP 26

It has an opportunity to lead, not only in putting the net zero target in place, but also in how this is achieved. 

If the UK government chooses to follow these recommendations of the experts, it could pave the way and be a leader. 

But if not, the incoming COP President may face some embarrassing situations from climate activists calling them out at the next global climate conference as climate laggards.

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