Alyssa Gilbert
September 2016

5th carbon budget: we have the vision to drive change, now we need the policies

There is no doubt that the end of June brought quite remarkable political times to the UK. One of these remarkable events was the Government’s endorsement of the fifth carbon budget, right in the middle of a political leadership debacle. The announcement on the 30th June by Amber Rudd, then Secretary of State for the environment and climate change, that the government would set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s advice was an important signal that climate change will continue to remain at the heart of this government’s policy landscape. 

Budgeting for the future

The UK’s Climate Change Act, passed in 2008, enshrines in law a long-term target for the UK to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050. This same act set up the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that makes recommendations on a set of consecutive so-called carbon budgets that take the nation towards the long-term 2050 target in digestible five-year steps.

The process is pretty sound. The committee takes a careful, analytical and evidence-led approach to the preparation of its advice, including extensive technical studies, model runs and engagement with stakeholders.  The government can then choose whether or not to adopt these targets, but even if the targets are rejected, the obligation to meet the 2050 target remains in place. It would be a foolish government indeed that committed to action on climate change but rejected well-researched recommendations outright.

The fifth carbon budget covers the period from 2028-2032 and is set at a 57% reduction on 1990 emission levels. It builds naturally on the 4th carbon budget, which has already been set, and adds very little additional cost (0.1% of GDP) to the carbon budgets that government is already committed to. This cost is without consideration of the co-benefits that mitigation of climate change have on health, energy security and other areas of the economy. 

A matter of policy

However, the real challenge is going to be putting the actual policies in place that are needed to deliver all the carbon budgets that the government has adopted.  Getting consistent and effective policy signals in place has been a challenge for this government – from unexpected changes to renewable energy feed-in tariffs, through to ditching zero-carbon homes last summer and the EU referendum fallout this year. The carbon budget process offers one level of vision and certainty but it is the detailed policies that will encourage investors and businesses to step in and deliver on these goals.

Following the recent decision to merge the Department of Energy and Climate change (DECC) into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), it is more vital than ever that there is a centralised and clear policy framework and strategy to achieve the carbon budgets. The Carbon Plan was due for delivery by December 2016 and we will be keeping a close eye on its progress. 

The costs estimated by the CCC depend on effective and timely policy making. If action is delayed, then the costs of reducing greenhouse gases emissions could deviate from their estimates. The CCC’s report in relation to the fifth carbon budget makes reference to the need to invest up front in infrastructure. It also highlights the importance of supporting the deployment of technologies that may be expensive now, such as heat pumps, but require early stimulation to create the supply chains needed to reduce emissions at scale in the later carbon budget periods.

Changing behaviours

Many of the most important changes needed to underpin a low carbon society require investment in infrastructure, and the roll out of technologies in transport and energy.  However, a number of deeper emissions reduction cuts require behavioural changes by individuals, companies and communities. Enabling and stimulating new norms is one of the greatest challenges in the proposed goals.  The health community has struggled for years to stimulate behaviour change where the stakes are as high as they get for individuals – changing behaviours for environmental good is going to be a particularly tricky nut to crack.

The carbon budget recommendations are set in the context of important concerns around fuel poverty, competitiveness and energy prices.It remains key that the environmental agenda is pursued in an integrated manner – understanding the range of concerns and priorities that people have, and working with those priorities, rather than an add-on or, worse still, considered at odds with other important goals such as economic development and immediately pressing human health and equality needs.

In light of the UK’s recent commitments at last year’s UN climate conference (COP21) in Paris, it is important that the UK continues to set our economy on the necessary track to meet our long-term greenhouse gas mitigation commitments. At a time when the UK is renegotiating its relationship with its neighbours and the global community, this sign of commitment to our climate goals is reassuring indeed. Now, we hope to see signals of the policy framework that must follow.


Alyssa Gilbert is the Head of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute for Climate change and the Environment at Imperial College London where she connects relevant research across the university with policy-makers and businesses.  She is also a member of NERC’s Strategic Programme Advisory Committee (SPAG). Prior to joining Imperial, Alyssa worked at the specialist energy and climate consultancy Ecofys for many years.

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