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British Climate Change Act doomed to failure claims study 19.06.09

Environment ResearchWeb: The UK Climate Change Act of 2008 recommends reducing carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050 and 34% by 2022 but these goals are just too ambitious according to a new study. The Act is also "fundamentally flawed" and would require decarbonization rates that are simply unrealistic.

"The Act is the most aggressive domestic legislation for emissions reductions ever," Roger Pielke at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research of the University of Colorado told environmentalresearchweb. "It also contains quantitative metrics for short-term emissions reductions, which means that it is straightforward to analyze."

At the end of last year, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change released a report recommending that national greenhouse gas emissions reduce by at least 80% by the middle of this century and by 34% by 2022. The report stipulated that such reductions are feasible at a cost of just 1–2% of the GDP in 2050.

But Pielke argues that not only is the 2008 UK Climate Change Act doomed to fail, both in the short and long term, it is also fundamentally flawed. He says that the approach to emissions reductions put forward by the Act is "backwards". "It begins with a target and then only later do policy makers ask how that target might be achieved – with no consideration for whether the target implies realistic or feasible rates of decarbonization," he explains. Both the 2022 interim and 2050 targets require rates of decarbonization far higher than those ever achieved by any large economy to date, adds Pielke.

More worrying still is that working towards the targets set out by the Act would require seemingly impossible feats. For example, the UK would need to achieve a carbon efficiency on a par with that of France – a relatively carbon-efficient economy – in a period of less than a decade. Achieving this would require Britain to deploy some 30 new nuclear plants during this time to replace existing coal- and natural gas-fuelled power stations. "That simply isn’t going to happen," he stresses.

Pielke reached his conclusions by analyzing the targets in the Act using both bottom-up and top-down methods (the "Kaya identity" approach) that took projections of future UK population, economic growth and technology into account. He assessed the rate of decarbonization of the UK economy needed to reach the targets, using France as a comparison.

The calculations show that the UK would have to achieve annual decarbonization rates of more than 5%, a figure that no country has ever attained. In other words, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by each individual in the UK would need to reduce by as much as 85% in 2050 and 35% in 2022 from 1990 levels.

"Given the magnitude of the challenge, it would not be unfair to say the UK Climate Change Act has failed even before it has gotten started," says Pielke. "The Act will need to be revisited by Parliament or be simply ignored by policy makers."

Pielke suggests that policy should focus less on targets and more on the processes for achieving these goals. Setting targets and timetables for different energy sectors and expanding carbon-free energy supplies would be "a step in the right direction".

Pielke hopes that his evaluation will signal the need for climate targets to be reconciled with what is practically possible, "lest climate policy becomes merely an exercise in exhortation and symbolism".

"How the UK responds to the failure of its Climate Change Act will be absolutely critical to climate policy efforts worldwide," he adds.

Pielke, who published his work in Environmental Research Letters, is now conducting similar analyses for other countries and expanding his work on alternative approaches to achieving emission reduction targets.

About the author

Belle Dumé is a contributing editor to environmentalresearchweb.

The British Climate Change Act: a critical evaluation and proposed alternative approach by Roger Pielke published in Environmental Research Letters

Peter Shield

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