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Earth Day 2021: Is the UK Likely to Meet the new Carbon Emission Targets?

Governments across the world have made ambitious commitments to cut carbon emissions and ensure that global warming doesn’t reach the dangerous 1.5C or 2C increase above pre-industrial levels. From China’s pledge to be net zero by 2060 to the recent US and China climate change commitment,  the environment has been prevalent on policy agendas globally – and the UK is no exception. 

What are the carbon emissions targets?

This week, the British government unveiled comprehensive new climate change commitments with the aim of cutting carbon emissions by 78% by 2035. Not only is this more far-reaching than previous pledges – bringing the current target for reducing emissions forward by 15 years – but it would be a world-leading stance on climate change policy. The plans include an increase in renewable energy, a focus on more electric cars, lower-carbon heating and, significantly, reducing our meat and dairy intake. 

Are the carbon emissions targets feasible? 

Recommended by the independent Climate Change Committee, the emissions cut follows the committee’s advice to keep the rise in global temperatures at 1.5C. The plans would require roughly 1% of GDP to be spent on shifting away from fossil fuels over 30 years. While this may sound attainable, it’s important to remember that governments, including the UK government, often fail to prioritise environmental concerns on the policy agenda. 

Since the effects of global warming are yet to be seen, at least in the UK, policy makers often fail to achieve long-term goals, instead favouring short-term successes – particularly economic successes. Indeed, climate change initiatives are entirely at odds with this as they demand significant upfront investment for a result that materialises several years, if not decades, down the line. Despite the fact that this investment often ends up cheaper in the long run, policy makers can fall foul to pursuing initiatives that have tangible effects during their four year term. As such, to what extent should we praise governmental pledges to cut emissions as ‘world-leading’ before those measures actually materialise? This is particularly important when noting that governments often redefine or backtrack on green targets

woman in black jacket holding white printer paper

How will the Coronavirus pandemic impact meeting targets?

Problematically, this is only intensified by the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic. The International Energy Agency has predicted a significant increase in CO2 emissions from energy for 2021 as economies recover from the effects of the pandemic. Although the pandemic resulted in the biggest fall in demand for energy since World War Two, CO2 is anticipated to rise by the second largest annual amount ever on record. This suggests that the celebrated fall in pollution and emission levels during national lockdowns around the world were a temporary side-effect of the ongoing pandemic, and the opportunity to rebuild economies sustainably in the short-term may be unlikely. 

What does this mean?

While the UK government’s climate change commitments are promising, there is still a substantial way to go before the measures are viewed as realistic or feasible. Arguably, the public will have greater confidence in the plans once the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has outlined the budgetary plans to meet these targets. 

Once the commitments are substantiated financially, it will remain to be seen how the measures are implemented in practice. Importantly, it will depend on whether the government will stick to current plans or if they are redefined and regressed to become more attainable, but less effective, in the short-term. However, the plans are a significant step towards a more sustainable future and, rather than being the final goal, they are an important foundation from which we can continue to cut emissions to surpass the targets and to enforce political accountability for climate change policy.

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