December 2020 – a promising start for a low carbon 2021?
Green Advent. Can we expect to see progress on a pioneering UK post-Brexit Environment Bill, new US support for next year’s COP26 summit and the Paris climate agreement, plus a detailed UK green recovery plan – all before Christmas? Fingers-crossed, yes!
The final month of an unprecedentedly turbulent year could end on an expectedly up-beat environmental note – with encouraging signs for a far-from-smooth but positive new year to come.
News that a series of Covid-19 vaccines could soon begin to return us to some form of stable new normal has to be November’s most important development. But there are other positive pointers.
Post-Brexit environmental regime
The first, after multiple-delays made worse by a pandemic squeeze on Parliamentary time, is progress at last on the UK’s new and untried Environment Bill that will regulate environmental performance outside the EU.
To update us on recent developments, IEMA’s Chief Policy Advisor Martin Baxter joined us online on 5th November to discuss the bill and new UK green watch-dog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). More on what he said in a moment.
Good green news from across the pond
The second reason to be cheerful could come from North America where the strong indications are that a Biden White House will make an early 180 degree climate change policy turn.
The US formally left the 2015 Paris climate agreement on 4th November following a four-year notice period – a day after the 2020 Presidential election.
But the Biden team is expected to play a central role in the November 2021 UN COP26 climate summit co-hosted by the UK in Glasgow; the COP26 goal is to finalise detailed emission cuts from 189 countries to minimise global warming this century.
Green energy strategy … at last
An early present on the pre-Christmas wish-list has been the unveiling of a 10-point sustainable energy plan that builds on the Prime Minister’s October announcement of a major offshore wind power expansion.
To meet the UK’s promise to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the plan includes an early ban on new petrol and diesel vehicle sales, plus more energy-efficient homes and buildings.
It also considers the potential of hydrogen power, carbon capture technology, at least one new conventional nuclear power station, using modular mini-reactors, and the possibilities of nuclear fusion project – the energy powering the stars.
Environmental ringside seat
Martin Baxter joined the Chamber Low Carbon team and guests at the Chamber Low Carbon Programme’s “Environmental Policy Update” meeting on 5th November. If you missed it, the complete and very detailed session where he summarises both positive points and concerns can be seen again at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBx_VRThjcg.
The updated legislative timetable means that the bill’s report stage is scheduled for 1st December; it will also be read for the first time by the Lords. Royal Assent is expected in March 2021.
On its long passage through Westminster, the bill which sets out a new UK governance framework has raised concerns over its suitability to replace the EU’s comprehensive environmental legislation.
One particular area of concern is a new green watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection – and the amount of power that will lie in the hands of future secretaries of state.
However, whoever holds the post will also have a duty to check how effective environmental laws are in practice, monitor progress in achieving targets and report annually to Parliament. Local authority performance will also be monitored on key issues such as air quality, with High Court sanctions if necessary.
Joined up thinking
One important strength Martin noted is that the bill integrates air quality, waste and water management, resource-efficiency, carbon emissions, plus the natural environment and biodiversity.
Another is that it is also designed to embrace environmental decision-making across all government departments – from education to transport, communities and health.
New Year’s Day
From 1st January 2021 onwards, thousands of new laws, and changes to existing laws, will come into effect. Linked to a one-year Spending Review, Martin believes this could be a beneficial opportunity for the Chancellor to invest in a future based on sustainability.
“It’s positive to hear the Government talk about the importance of a green recovery with climate change at the heart of its thinking,” he said, adding, “It does give me some hope. But words and actions are not always synonymous.”
Key points in the bill
Meanwhile, he noted a number of key points within the updated bill: –
– Waste and the producer’s responsibility will feature prominently, with a sharp focus on packaging waste. Water will see reductions in phosphate and nitrate pollution from farming and a drive to reduce consumption by 2050.
– Air quality will include calls for more collaboration and cooperation between local authorities, plus a strong focus on reducing fine particulates in the air generally and specifically in vulnerable areas.
– Biodiversity will see nature recovery networks across the UK. Reducing the rate of decline will not be good enough. Natural capital will be enhanced. A fall in the quality of SSSIs will be reversed.
UK-based businesses must also stop importing products or materials linked to global deforestation Defra announced on 11 November. Companies must prove that ‘forest risk’ commodities sourced internationally come from deforestation-free suppliers. Soy, palm oil, cocoa, beef, leather, rubber plus wood and paper are covered.
– Non-regression and improved environmental standards will be a key feature which the secretary of state will have a duty to update every two years while noting global environmental developments.
Work has also started on forming legally-binding targets, with public consultations due from October 2021 to February 2022; draft legislation will go to Parliament between March and October 2022
How are we doing on net-zero?
Are we breaking the link between economic growth and environment impact? Yes, says Martin, the UK is beginning to show leadership compared to other countries.
The power sector and industry have delivered the most change; transport and other sectors are lagging behind. The challenge, he adds, is for all parts of the economy to aim for a better environment rapidly as part of the UK’s Clean Growth Strategy.
In his opinion there is still too much emphasis on “net” and not enough on “zero”. Only when “zero” is impossible should “net” be allowed, he believes.
Sixth Carbon Budget
This year will also see the Sixth Carbon Budget (9th December) presented under the Climate Change Act. It will govern the volume of greenhouse gases the UK can emit from 2033 to 2037 and be the first with a 100% rather than 80% emissions reduction target. Martin describes it as a seismic shift.
UK-US special environmental relationship?
Boris Johnson was quoted as saying recently, “I think now with President Biden in the White House in Washington, we have the real prospect of American global leadership in tackling climate change.”
Although the Republican Party may keep control of the Senate, bipartisan cooperation was successful recently in reducing the use of powerful GHG refrigerant hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and in the Bipartisan Wildlife Conservation Act designed to improve conservation and protect ecosystems.
Although the president-elect may have to make political compromises domestically, he has promised to convene a special meeting of world leaders on climate change in his first 100-days.
He could return the US quickly to the Paris climate change process with upgraded emission-reduction commitments. This would be an important foreign policy bonus for the UK as co-host of the pivotal COP26 summit which Mr Johnson is anxious should be a success for post-Brexit Britain.
With the US’ shoulder to the wheel, achieving the Paris December 2015’s COP21 aim of keeping global temperature rises to no more than 1.5C is said to be potentially achievable.
President Biden’s goals
Ideally, Joe Biden would like most US power-generation to be carbon free by 2035, with net-zero emissions by 2050; there would also be emissions cuts from four million buildings.
He also envisages heavy spending on green public transport, electric vehicle (EVs), the manufacturing sector, with new financial incentives to use clean cars.
A White House National Climate Council, a “carbon bank” to pay landowners for storing carbon, vehicle electrification via the transport department, plus a Treasury climate policy that promotes emissions cuts through tax, budget and regulatory policies are also on the cards.
Two to tango
However, for a successful partnership the UK needs to put forward its own an effective net-zero emissions strategy. No 10, No 11 and BEIS have been busy developing a radical 10-point strategy announced on 18th November designed to deliver the UK’s 2050 carbon-free goal.
It will build on the offshore wind power expansion plan the Prime Minister unveiled recently. Building at least one new conventional nuclear power station is another component.
Although six sites were ear-marked a decade ago, only one – Hinkley Point C in Somerset – is currently under construction. A second Sizewell C reactor could be built in Suffolk, with work starting in the life of this Parliament. The potential role of fusion power which joins rather than splitting atoms is also being considered.
A key change will be bringing the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles forward from 2040 to 2030. Other agenda items will be carbon capture technology to clean up some fossil-fuels, hydrogen to replace fossil-fuels, home heating targets using ground-source heat pumps, plus better home insulation and replacing 25 million household gas boilers.
Owning a Rolls
By 2025, Rolls Royce expects to create 6,000 new UK jobs by building 16 small modular reactors (SMRs) around the UK similar to the type that power nuclear submarines.
Manufactured in factories and then moved to site, these could provide 440MW of electricity, enough to power 450,000 homes, over a 60-year life span. However, they will have to compete with increasingly cost-efficient wind and solar power and may be more expensive.
SOS in a bottle
A tiny experiment carried out at the North Pole proves that we have little time to waste in facing up to the consequences of global warming.
A metal cylinder sunk into the polar ice in 2018 by passengers and crew of a nuclear icebreaker was found on the Irish coast in November after breaking free of the Arctic Circle and travelling 2,300 miles!
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