COP26: All eyes are on the hosts, but can the UK deliver when it matters most?

Posted in: Environment

Posted on: 03.09.2021

From the Olympics to the G7, the UK has vast experience delivering some of the most important events on the world stage. 

This autumn however, the stakes are much higher. The UK will be hosting the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) where countries must set out plans for radical cuts in emissions to avoid irreversible and devastating changes to our planet.

Well aware that future historians will be analysing the role of the UK in these negotiations, it is useful to explore this year’s hosts in more detail and whether they can deliver the critical leadership the world needs.   

The UK’s climate credentials

For the last twenty years, there have been markers of progress in our efforts in tackling climate change (with renewable generation contributing heavily to this success). Some notable mentions include:  

  • Between 1990 & 2019 emissions have decreased by 44%.
  • The first major economy to put net zero carbon emissions by 2050 into law.
  • A thriving wind sector, which in 2020 provided 24.1% of the UK’s electricity.
  • Banning the sale of petrol & diesel cars in the UK by 2030
  • Making climate-related financial disclosures mandatory across the economy by 2025

Boris Johnson at the EU2017EE Estonian Presidency, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back, the headline success story of 44% emissions reduction is actually a very misleading statistic

All sounds great, right?

Well, not quite. Behind the rhetoric and headlines, there is still a lot more work for the UK to do.

The Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) recent progress report concluded that the UK government must ‘step up very rapidly’ to meet the ambitious targets. The CCC concluded that the government has been too slow to follow these commitments with policy delivery.

Looking back, the headline success story of 44% emissions reduction is actually a very misleading statistic. Since 1990, consumption-based footprint only dropped by 15% between 1990 – 2016.

This is due to a large percentage of manufacturing moving overseas during this period. The emissions are reported in the manufacturing country as opposed to the UK, creating a distorted picture.

More recent developments include the UK Government scrapping its flagship energy efficiency programme after six months, facing fierce criticism for plans to develop a new coalmine in Cumbria and slashing the overseas aid budget to help poorer countries adapt to the climate emergency.

How can the UK improve its credentials in time for COP26?

Here are our top three recommendations for the government in time for this years’ conference:

  • Close the rhetorical gap – the government needs to urgently bring forward policy that matches the ambitious rhetorical commitments. The CCC has published over two hundred recommendations which include areas such as phasing out gas boilers, a replacement for green homes grant scheme and accelerating the rollout of EV charging infrastructure.
  • Carbon border tax – COP26 presents a great opportunity for the UK to bring forward an ambitious carbon border tax. To tackle emissions globally, the UK should use its leadership role to introduce a mechanism that would prevent the offshoring emissions to other countries and send a big signal to some of the world’s biggest polluters.
  • Do the known now – some of the solutions to net zero are already known and can be deployed immediately. The government can remove barriers for mature renewable technologies, improve the energy efficiency of our buildings and raise the ambition on heat pump installations. Acting now will greatly affect the ease and speed with which the transition can be made.

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