Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

Johnson 'to back 78% emissions cut' as global emissions bounce back

Prime minister Boris Johnson is set to confirm the government will adopt a target to cut greenhouse emissions by 78% by 2035, according to reports, ahead of a US-led climate summit of world leaders this week.

The Climate Change Committee backed the ambitious target for the sixth carbon budget, covering the 2033-37 period, late last year. It effectively brings forward the Climate Change Act 2008’s original 80% goal by 15 years, if changes to emission calculations are considered.

The advisory body said that meeting the new target, which implies decarbonising the economy at rapid pace, would pay for itself. It expects it to be met from lower demand for meat and dairy products, lower demand for travel, low-carbon home heating and zero-emissions electricity displacing demand for fossil fuels, alongside a vast exercise in afforestation and many other changes to the economy and government policy.

The target is expected to cover the UK’s  share of international aviation and shipping emissions, which are often excluded when reporting national emissions.

The government has already signed up to greenhouse gas emissions being 68% lower than 1990 by 2030, as confirmed in a revised ‘nationally determined contribution’ under the Paris Agreement in December. This was already one of the most ambitious targets set by any developed economy and has, in effect, replaced the fifth carbon budget, which was incompatible with reaching net zero by 2050.

But shadow business secretary Ed Miliband dismissed the government as offering “targets without delivery”.

“Ministers have failed to bring forward an ambitious green recovery, passing up three major fiscal events to do so. They are flirting with proposals for a new deep coal mine, axed the vital housing retrofit scheme, and are way off track for our net zero targets,” he added.

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Connor Schwartz was similarly dismissive: “Boris Johnson’s government may want to show global leadership ahead of this year’s crucial climate summit, but with its backing for new roads and airport expansion, and huge financial support for a mega gas development in Mozambique, it won’t be taken seriously.”

Nevertheless, the two targets should help set the pace for bolstering global efforts to fight climate change, especially when taken together with president Joe Biden’s drive to cut American emissions, China’s reversal of support for coal power and pledge to hit net zero by 2060 and EU decarbonisation efforts.

Even Australia, which has the highest per-capita carbon emissions among the world’s richest countries, is now inching towards net zero. Long beset by reliance on coal and gas for electricity and with big exports of the fuel, it should meet the goal “preferably by 2050”, according to a speech given by its prime minister Scott Morrison yesterday.

But the signs are that the country will not make any formal climate pledge at Biden’s summit on Thursday and Friday, despite growing diplomatic pressure. The US president himself will unveil a new national emissions plan, expected to be comparable to the UK’s, at the event, which will be held virtually.

It is still possible that this could be the fate for COP26 itself, posing a stumbling block for the negotiations, as MPs warned yesterday. Quizzed about the prospect in the Commons last week, COP president-designate Alok Sharma said that, “We are working very hard to ensure that we deliver an in-person COP that allows all countries to participate on an equal footing. That is incredibly important, as many parties feel strongly that negotiations must be in person.”

However, he admitted that the government is working on a fall-back position. “We continue to explore how technology and other innovations can make the summit more resilient, safe and inclusive,” he said. There is clearly little appetite delaying the talks, having been pushed back by a year already.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency predicts that this year will see the second-largest increase in global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in history, driven by the economic recovery from the pandemic and surging coal consumption in Asia.

“Demand for all fossil fuels is set to grow significantly in 2021. Coal demand alone is projected to increase by 60% more than all renewables combined, underpinning a rise in emissions of almost 5%, or 1500m tonnes. This expected increase would reverse 80% of the drop in 2020, with emissions ending up just 1.2% (or 400 Mt) below 2019 emissions levels,” it said in a report released today.

But it offers some hope, considering that, “Renewables remain the success story of the Covid-19 era.” Renewables are expected to deliver 30% of the global electricity mix this year, up from under 27% in 2019. Wind generation is projected to rise by 17% on 2020 levels, with solar rising by around the same amount to approach a petawatt-hour in 2021, equivalent to the energy in 123 million tonnes of coal.

“Global carbon emissions are set to jump by 1.5 billion tonnes this year – driven by the resurgence of coal use in the power sector. This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

“Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022. The Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by US President Joe Biden this week is a critical moment to commit to clear and immediate action ahead of COP26 in Glasgow,” he added.

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