Will the UK use a legal loophole to hit government climate targets?

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Christopher Furlong/Getty

Rather than taking concrete action on climate change, the UK looks set to use creative accounting to meet its legal obligations to tackle global warming.

The UK has a binding target of reducing emissions 80 per cent by 2050. To get there, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) sets rolling five-year carbon budgets. Between the second of those budgets – 2013-2017 – the UK overperformed and cut by more than needed.

On Tuesday it emerged ministers have controversially agreed to count those historical savings against future targets, which the UK is set to miss.

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The move would be legal, as the Climate Change Act, which sets the binding target, permits the use of such ‘flexibilities’. But that does not make it a good idea. The step would be a “clear case of gaming the system”, says Sam Fankhauser of the London School of Economics. “Allowing more emissions in the future instead of making actual progress on cutting emissions is short-term thinking.”

Previous governments thought it was a bad approach. Ed Davey, energy secretary between 2012 and 2015, said it was best to meet the 2050 goal through action, not “statistical loopholes.”

Ministers can’t pretend they haven’t been warned of the dangers of cooking the books. In February the CCC wrote to climate minister Claire Perry, telling her its unequivocal advice for the government was not to carry forward the carbon surplus.

There has been a lot of subsequent wrangling within the government, with progressive figures saying the advice should be accepted, government sources tell New Scientist. But chancellor Phillip Hammond and business secretary Greg Clark have won out, the Financial Times reported on Tuesday, and the UK will count the savings against future targets.

The CCC has made crystal clear why that’s bad. Such accounting would add “unnecessary costs” to meeting the 2050 goal, said John Gummer, the group’s chairman, in his February letter.

It would also be inconsistent with the Paris agreement, the major UN climate deal that nearly 200 countries forged in 2015, he added. That matters. Not just for the goals of the climate accord, but because it could even damage the UK’s bid to host next year’s UN climate summit.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, carrying forward a surplus would also “undermine the integrity” of the UK’s whole framework for cutting carbon, Gummer said.

Counting previous carbon cuts, some of which came about simply because of the 2008 financial crash, is not a good idea when greater ambition is needed. The government is expected to imminently set a target of upgrading the 2050 target to reduce emission to net zero, as the the CCC recently demanded. Getting to net zero means new policies, not accounting tricks.

Finally, using loopholes to meet carbon targets could hurt the UK’s standing on the international stage and its justified claim to leadership on climate change. Counting historical cuts “is absolutely not leadership,” said Gareth Redmond-King of WWF, in a statement.

The government has publicly neither confirmed or denied the move, so it may still not come to pass. But if it does become official, CCC chief executive Chris Stark says he is sure the group will “have a view”.