In today’s Finshots, we tell you why the UK High Court rejected the government’s climate action plan.

The Story

“Vague and unquantified”

That’s what the UK High Court judge recently called the government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP). Think of it as a smaller part of the wider Net Zero strategy. Or limiting greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) only to the extent of the emissions that can be removed from the atmosphere, ultimately nullifying their effect by 2050.

And since carbon dioxide (CO2) is a GHG too, the UK has been setting five yearly targets in the form of the CBDP to cap its emissions.

But the country’s High Court doesn’t think the plan is capable of achieving its goals. If anything, it has declared the UK’s CBDP unlawful. And this isn’t even the first time. In 2022, the High Court handed down a similar ruling and rejected an earlier version of the plan.

So what’s going on, you ask?

Let’s take it from the top.

Look, extreme heat waves or rainfall and melting glaciers have already rung the climate chaos alarm, thanks to global GHG emissions. And if this persists, then close to three fourths of the global population could be exposed to life threatening periods of extreme heat and humidity by 2100. And those who’ve contributed least to the climate crisis or those in the low and lower-middle income countries, which are also mostly located in the tropics will bear the brunt of these extremities.

Now, you’ve probably heard this a lot. But the world somewhat came to realise this much earlier.

So in 1992, most of the countries came together to agree on a plan to control GHG emissions. We’re talking about the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The idea was to stabilise the concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere so that they don’t dangerously interfere with the climate's natural cycle.

To put things into perspective, they’d try to hold the increase in the average global temperature to well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels by the second half of this century. Or not overstepping the 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels-mark if possible. And while pre-industrial levels could ideally mean the years between 1720 and 1800, most countries have stuck to 1990 as the baseline or year of reference.

With that in mind, countries began chalking out their own plans to achieve what they’d agreed upon. And so did the UK. In 2008, it came up with something called the Climate Change Act.

This Act was built on the back of carbon budgets. Or statutory caps on the total greenhouse gas emissions the UK could emit in every five-year intervals. So that meant having about 9 five yearly carbon budgets until 2052.

The government would assess these budgets by looking at something called the net UK carbon account. Think of it as an account where the government debits carbon units, synonymous with industrial emissions. Then, there are credits that offset these carbon units when they reduce GHG emissions, maybe through building natural carbon sinks like forests or even technological methods like carbon capture. What remains in the end must not exceed the five yearly budgets the government chalks out.

And that would make sure that the net UK carbon account for 2050 would at least be 100% lower than the CO2 and other GHG emissions in 1990.

But here’s the problem.

The plans that the government has carved out don’t seem to be promising enough. They are unlikely to help the country meet its sixth carbon budget targets for the years 2033 to 2037.

Yeah, we know what you’re thinking. That’s about a decade away. But that’s how these budgets work. They’re planned well ahead of time so that the country can actually put its plans into practice and cut down its emissions.

But the Climate Change Committee (CCC) which oversees things under the Act has found out that the government’s latest climate plans had reliable policies for just about 39% of the emissions cuts needed to meet this particular carbon budget.

But how did they prove their point?

Well, here are a few of their many perspectives that helped build their arguments.

One thing they looked at is airports. The UK has over 60 airports and many of them are looking to expand. But here’s the thing. The UK’s aviation sector itself has emitted 95% more emissions between 2021 and 2022. And the CCC believes that the only way one airport can expand is if another one shrinks. But there aren’t actually any that’ll do this.

Then there’s the bit about building natural carbon sinks by planting more trees and expanding forest cover. The government wants to create 30,000 hectares of new woodland every year by 2025. But constituent countries of the UK are way off track in meeting their targets.

For context, Scotland actually needs to create over 15,000 hectares of new woodland every year to tackle climate change. But it has been consistently missing its annual targets in the past and was only able to create about 8,000 hectares of forest last year.

And we haven’t even spoken about the fuel supply and transportation sector yet, whose emissions have been climbing up too. The deal with these sectors is that despite people thinking of switching to electric transportation, non-passenger vehicles like vans used for transporting goods, are finding it hard to do the same.

There were over 4 million vans in the UK as of 2019 and they account for about 11% of all the vehicles on roads ― an increase of about 90% over the last 25 years. And if that number keeps growing then the country needs more chargers. While that’s increasing, vans might still not be able to adapt because of practical problems.

For instance, van drivers take their diesel vans home after work and drive them to the depots the next day. But with electric vans they’ll need permissions from landlords to install charging infrastructure at shared spaces. Even if they leave their vans at the depot, the grid capacity for charging has to go up. And that doesn’t seem to be happening fast enough as of now.

So yeah, all of these things put together means that the plans that the UK government presented to meet its net zero targets may not have been able to address these contingencies. And without workable backup ideas to make up for the excess emissions caused because of them, the climate plan might actually not deliver what it promises.

Sure, they have ideas like carbon capture and storage technologies. But these aren’t proven to be scalable options yet.

That’s exactly why the UK High Court slammed the door on the government’s ideas two times in a row, asking it to whip up some fresh ideas. Will the government be able to come back with real solutions this time? We’ll have to wait and see. After all, the third time’s a charm, no?

Until then…

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