Imperial College London

Climate change policies need to improve for UK to reduce carbon emissions

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Meeting the UK’s ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions target will require revamping climate change policies and promoting ‘clean’ technologies.

This was the main conclusion of a new election analysis from the Centre for Economic Performance, by the London School of Economics, which involved input from Imperial researchers.

According to the findings of the report, UK greenhouse gas emissions are declining and have been declining for some time. The UK has a framework of long-run targets developed by the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body of experts advising government. Despite this, there are concerns about the country's ability to reach the 2050 target.

"The UK must do more to ensure it meets its climate targets", said Dr Ralf Martin, joint author of the report and Associate Professor of Economics at Imperial College Business School. "In doing so, UK policy-makers need to keep in mind that the policy objective must be to reduce global emissions."

"The UK can contribute to that most effectively by helping to develop, pilot and improve technology that will make a transition to clean technology the economically rational thing to do, even if households and firms ignore the potential damage from climate change"

"UK policy-makers need to keep in mind that the policy objective must be to reduce global emissions." Dr Ralf Martin Associate Professor of Economics, Business School

The report says that a key factor of lower emissions growth over the last 10 years has been the drop in output and slow catch-up in the wake of the global financial crisis. But even without further recovery and continued slow growth due to Brexit, it is unlikely that future carbon targets will be met. The researchers highlighted how the UK can affect its own climate emissions and what happens in other countries, by pushing the knowledge frontier on clean technologies and practices.

"After a sharp increase in clean (and grey) technology innovation from 2000 to 2010, there has been a dramatic collapse across countries. A likely reason for this has been the decline in government support due to budget pressures after the Great Recession." Dr Martin said. "By embedding support for clean technology in a wider industrial strategy and focusing on areas where social returns are highest, such a strategy can also contribute to further economic growth in the short run."

The report shows:

  • The UK has a framework of long-term targets, which aim to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 in line with what is needed on a global scale to prevent the most severe forms of climate change. But there are concerns about the country’s ability to reach these targets.
  • A key factor causing lower emissions growth over the last ten years has been the drop in output and slow catch-up that occurred in the wake of the global financial crisis. 
  • While this was helpful for climate change in the short run, the trend will reverse if growth picks up and this will make emissions reduction harder in the long run, unless concerted action is taken to make the transition towards a clean economy. 
  • The evolution of UK climate change policy is also in danger from Brexit: while slower emissions growth resulting from leaving the EU may reduce emissions in the short run, at the same time less investment in pro-environment research and development (R&D) and infrastructure is likely to result in emissions being higher in the long run. With much of UK climate policy derived from EU policy there is also the risk of policy dilution post Brexit. 
  • To meet the long-term targets, further action is needed to commit more resources to renewable energy deployment as well as R&D. 
  • Residential energy use should also be tackled by providing the right incentives to move to gas-free options while ensuring that the poorest households are not unduly burdened.

 The full report is available to download from the CEP Election Analysis:    Energy and Climate Change website.

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Laura Singleton

Laura Singleton
Communications and Public Affairs

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