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Ten years since Parliament passed the world’s first Climate Change Act, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen significantly, whilst the economy has grown. However, following the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, countries are moving to increase the ambition of their climate targets.

Bright Blue has today published Hotting Up: Strengthening the Climate Change Act ten years on. The report proposes new policies to enable deeper decarbonisation in the decades ahead, including strengthening the Climate Change Act and adopting a new, legal net zero emission target.

As the report finds, the scientific, technological, legal, and political cases for deeper decarbonisation have strengthened significantly over the past ten years.

Scientific change

Developments in climate science have reaffirmed the imperative for urgent action. Trends in the main climate change indicators have continued to worsen, such as global mean sea level rise, global average temperature, extreme weather, and ice cover.

2015, 2016, and 2017 have been the warmest years on record by a significant margin. Over the past decade, global temperature rise has exceeded 1°C above pre-industrial levels and global average sea levels have risen by approximately 32 millimetres.

New evidence has also emerged regarding potential ‘tipping points’, whereby climate change triggers natural processes that subsequently accelerate it. A noticeable – and already observed – example is the melting of permafrost, which is permanently frozen soil that stores lots of greenhouse gases. This releases the greenhouse gases trapped within it and exacerbates climate change.

Many impacts of climate change are now being experienced globally and will have an impact on the UK, for example higher food prices and increased migration. In the UK itself there have been increased coastal and inland flooding, heat-related health effects, drought conditions, invasive species and diseases, and the decline in native species.

Developments in clean technology

Thankfully, substantial advances in clean technology mean further emissions reductions have become both cheaper and more practical, including in difficult sectors such as agriculture and shipping.

In agriculture, new models of drones are under development that can plant, water, fertilise, and monitor crops, avoiding the need for heavy machinery. This minimises soil compaction, which reduces soil’s ability to store carbon.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a key technology to decarbonise heavy industry, and has now been demonstrated in several countries, such as Canada and Norway. Given UK expertise in offshore oil and gas, and the abundance of natural storage capacity under the North Sea, there are substantial economic opportunities from future CCS deployment and development in the UK.

Progress in the international legal framework

In 2015, the UK became a signatory to the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. This includes the commitment to reach ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions, which is defined as achieving a balance between emissions by sources and removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by sinks.

For the UK to be compatible with the 1.5°C goal, the Committee on Climate Change has estimated that the UK would need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 86%-96% below 1990 levels, by 2050.

Public attitudes to the impacts of and policies on climate change

Our polling analysis shows growing public concern about climate change. Fifty-one percent of UK adults are more worried about climate change than they were ten years ago. Likewise nearly two-thirds of UK adults (64%) agree that weather around the world is becoming more extreme because of climate change caused by humans. A higher proportion (72%) of under 40s agree.

We also find strong support for UK international leadership on tackling climate change. Sixty-four percent of UK adults agree that the UK should aim to cut its carbon emissions to zero in the next few decades (64% of under 40s agree and 58% of Conservative voters). Likewise, 63% agreed that the UK should be a global leader in tackling climate change (66% of under 40s agree and 56% of Conservative voters). Sixty-one percent of UK adults agreed that, by cutting its emissions, the UK will benefit economically by creating new low-carbon industries (65% of under 40s agree and 56% of Conservative voters).

Conclusion

The scientific, technological, legal, and political cases for deeper decarbonisation in the decades ahead are strong. The report proposes new policies to strengthen the Climate Change Act. In particular, it proposes enshrining in law a target date for achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goals. The UK has the opportunity to become the first G7 country to adopt a legal net zero emissions target. This could help encourage other countries to strengthen their climate targets and be a central part of the Government’s post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ strategy.

Philip Box is a researcher at Bright Blue.

Bright Blue published ‘Hotting Up: Strengthening the Climate Change Act ten years on’ on 25 May 2018.