UK carbon emissions will halve by 2025 compared with 1990 levels if the fourth carbon budget set by the government is met.
After several weeks of internal disagreement, with several cabinet members against committing the UK to the tough new targets, energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne confirmed that the government is backing the budget recommendations made by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) for the period 2023 to 2027.
Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the government must set legally binding budgets for UK emissions. The first three budgets, from 2008 to 2022, were set in April 2009. The fourth carbon budget puts a cap on emissions equivalent to 1,950 million tonnes of CO2 for 2023–27, putting the UK on course to cut emissions by at least 80% by 2050.
Evidence of the tensions within the government was demonstrated by the decision to agree a budget review in 2014, with the target potentially scaled back if other EU countries have not adopted similarly ambitious goals.
“If our domestic commitments place us on a different emissions trajectory than the EU emissions trading system trajectory agreed by the EU, we will, as appropriate, revise our budget to align it with the actual EU trajectory,” said Huhne.
In a further move to appease critics, such as the chancellor George Osborne and business secretary Vince Cable, Huhne said that energy-intensive sectors would receive help to adjust to the low-carbon industrial transformation and remain competitive. Details of the package of measures will be announced by the end of the year.
The government also declined to tighten budgets two and three, which had been recommended in December by the CCC, and will buy off set credits in the international carbon markets to assist in meeting the 2023–27 targets, something the committee had advised against.
Despite these assurances, manufacturers criticised the budget. The EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, described the decision to sign up to significantly more ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions as disappointing.
“In the absence of convincing evidence of any appetite in the rest of Europe to make such a move, this risks damaging manufacturing competitiveness,” it said.
The UK concrete industry offered a similar assessment, warning that the approach could negate potential carbon savings by replacing highly regulated UK products with imports that have a higher CO2 impact due to less rigorous environmental standards and transportation.
Following Huhne’s announcement, Tata Steel partly blamed carbon regulation in the UK for more plant closures and job losses.
“There remains a great deal of uncertainty about the level of further unilateral carbon cost rises that the UK government is planning. These measures risk undermining our competitiveness and we must make ourselves stronger in preparation for them,” said Karl-Ulrich Köhler, managing director of its European operations, announcing proposals to close or mothball UK plants, putting at risk 1,500 jobs.
The decision to allow the 2023–27 targets to be partly secured by purchasing offsets was also criticised. “Buying offsets means that money will be spent on low-carbon investments overseas rather than helping to create a low-carbon economy here in the UK,” commented Martin Baxter, director of policy at IEMA.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers questioned whether the budget was achievable.
“The scale of the engineering deployment required to reduce emissions on this scale, in terms of energy, transport and other engineered infrastructure, is unprecedented and has never been seen in any industrialised nation before,” it warned.
The budgets to 2022 commit the UK government to reducing emissions by 34% against 1990 levels. Separately, the Scottish government is aiming to achieve a 42% cut by the same date under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act.