UK Carbon Plan aims for accountability

The coalition has set out its vision for moving the UK to a low-carbon economy, committing to specific timescales for policy delivery by its key departments. But there is as yet little detail on policies or a quantitative breakdown of UK carbon budgets by sector and departmental responsibility.

The government has published a wide-ranging draft carbon plan, outlining its developing policies over the next five years to promote the UK’s shift to a low-carbon economy. It will be the main point of reference for its obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008, but it does not propose any new carbon and energy measures other than those already being implemented or proposed.

The cross-departmental draft plan takes account of the first three carbon budgets, each covering a five-year period. They are set from 2008 out to 2022, alongside a timetable for delivery and a breakdown of responsibility by department and devolved administrations.

When finalised in October 2011, it will supersede the previous Labour government’s departmental action plans for mitigation (ENDS Report, April 2010), and its Low Carbon Transition Plan of 2009 (ENDS Report, July 2009).

This 2009 transition plan, which remains in force, covered the same 2008-2022 period, but needs amending to reflect measures aimed at meeting the more challenging fourth carbon budget for the period 2023-2027, to be set in law in July 2011.

In December 2010, the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change called for a 50% unilateral domestic greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2027 relative to 1990, to ease the path to a 80% reduction by 2050. It also proposed an additional 8% reduction in the event of a global climate agreement (ENDS Report, December 2010).  The committee also called for the UK’s target for 2020 to be tightened from 34 to 37%. The government has not yet signalled its intentions for the fourth budget.

The carbon plan consolidates the various strands of energy and climate policy into a roadmap to be frequently updated, reflecting new policies as they arise. The government will report publicly on the plan’s progress in meeting milestones in each economic sector on a quarterly basis, and on remedial action where targets have not been met. It is envisaged that it will be refreshed annually.

The draft plan highlights three key areas of change for the UK economy: a rapid shift towards low-carbon generation in the power sector, including renewable energy, new nuclear power and fossil fuel plant with carbon capture and storage, a step change in heating and energy efficiency in homes and businesses, and a reduction in transport systems’ emissions.

It also reaffirms the UK’s desire for a 30% greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for the EU by 2020 relative to 1990, and its intention to push for a new global climate agreement at the UN climate talks in Durban in December 2011.

There is little detail on specific policy mechanisms and an almost total absence of quantitative data in the draft plan. Unlike the Labour administration’s 2009 transition plan and departmental action plans, there is as yet no indication of how emission rights under the UK’s five year carbon budgets will be shared between different departments and the key economic sectors they oversee. The energy and climate department (DECC) would not confirm whether the new plan would include such a detailed breakdown.   

Even so, there is considerable detail on policy implementation timescales by department, informed by the government’s structural reform plans (ENDS Report, August 2010). The key delivery departments with major carbon budget obligations are unchanged from 2009, though their detailed responsibilities are gradually changing. They include energy and climate (DECC), environment (DEFRA), business (BIS), communities (DCLG), transport (DfT) and the Treasury.

DECC and the Treasury will have the central role in driving crucial electricity market reforms (ENDS Report, December 2010), with DECC facilitating new nuclear power by 2018, renewable energy, demonstration of carbon capture and storage technology, smart meter roll-out, and household energy efficiency through the Green Deal with DCLG and DEFRA.

DECC also has a key role in promoting emissions reduction across the government estate, working with other departments, and in EU and international climate policy with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and international development department (DfID).

BIS will play the lead role in establishing the forthcoming Green Investment Bank (ENDS Report, February 2011) with DECC. The bank is seen as crucial to levering the private investment needed to largely decarbonise the UK power grid by the 2030s, and in promoting the wider green growth and skills agenda during the transition.

The DCLG and DECC will have a crucial role in promoting renewable energy projects locally, in major infrastructure and local planning reforms, improved energy efficiency in existing buildings and low carbon new buildings, including housing.

One thing absent from the plan that featured in the Labour framework is a complex reporting structure of interdepartmental committees filtering policies before they reach cabinet-level discussion. DECC told ENDS this was unnecessary as all key secretaries of state and the prime minister were directly involved.

More detail will be added later in the year, once the implications of policy recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change on the fourth five-year carbon budget have been considered. Another reason why the plan cannot yet be finalised is that key consultations, notably on electricity market reform, have to be taken into account.

DECC says that there will also be in-depth sectoral updates in response to annual reports from the committee each October. These will cover the level of progress towards meeting carbon budgets and any further measures needed where it has been inadequate.

Commenting on the draft, Dr Neil Bentley, CBI deputy director-general, said: “Now the government has set out the timeline for making the shift to a low-carbon economy, it must stick to it.

“Businesses need policy certainty and clarity to commit to low-carbon investment, but they still do not know how key initiatives will work, including the new planning system and the Green Deal.” He said government needed to restore revenue recycling in the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) if it was serious about promoting business energy efficiency.

Gareth Stace, head of climate and environment at the Engineering Employers Federation, said the new plan set out “a clear timetable of cross-government action”, but he stressed the government needs to show a vision for ensuring its climate change objectives lead to job-creation and economic growth. He added that the EU’s 2050 Roadmap for a low-carbon economy provides it with the opportunity to focus on the most cost-effective and realistic way of achieving decarbonisation.

The draft plan is only available on-line as an HM Government publication – no individual department’s names are on the face of it. The foreword is signed by prime minister David Cameron, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and energy and climate secretary Chris Huhne.

DECC has issued an invitation for public comments on both the approach of the carbon plan and on how it can be strengthened. Responses should be sent to CarbonPlan@decc.gsi.gov.uk by 31 July 2011.

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