climate change politics

Britain’s new climate target

It’s been a busy week in the news. It would be easy to miss the story of Britain’s sixth carbon budget, which was announced yesterday and promptly lost in the shouting about football. To summarise, the British government has declared a new intermediate climate target. The ultimate aim is net zero by 2050. Intermediate targets help to keep that on track, and the government has declared a 78% cut by 2035.

This is significant for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s the target they were advised to set by their experts at the Climate Change Committee. They have listened and that doesn’t always happen.

Secondly, the target includes shipping and aviation for the first time. That’s a significant change, and one that opens up new possibilities for some stubborn sectors of the economy.

And third, 78% is really quite ambitious. Boris Johnson’s government are keen to stress that it’s the “world’s most ambitious climate change target”, but the government claim world-leading status for everything they ever do, which makes me sceptical. However, I can’t think of a more aggressive target than that off the top of my head. This time they might actually be right.

Of course, it’s easier to set targets than to deliver them. The UK as a whole isn’t on track to deliver its old climate targets, let alone the shiny new ones (though Scotland is ahead of the game.) We also have COP26 to host later this year, and we need to look like we’re leading the way. But remember, it was only a few years ago that Conservative Party back-benchers were agitating to bin climate targets altogether, and Theresa May was abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change. A lot has happened in a short amount of time.

It’s also true that targets are not filtering down to policy making just yet. In recent weeks we’ve had the government reduce electric car incentives and freeze fuel duty (again), abandon a flagship renovation project in the Green Homes Grant, and announce £27 billion for new roads. Appeals are still out on a new coal mine. There is a live discussion on lifting Air Passenger Duty to encourage more domestic aviation. These are not good signs, but as I just said, a lot can happen in a short amount of time.

Despite the caveats and the disappointment of those who want even more radical action, this week’s announcement is firmly in the good news column. A target like this is a tool of accountability, something to raise in objection to airport expansions and new fossil fuel projects, and to inspire bolder policy making to actually start to deliver those emissions cuts.


  1. Should Ballymena be joining a global electrical grid – solar power from the Sahara, geo-thermal energy from Iceland, and wind power from Texas? Time for a World Parliament to co-ordinate?

  2. When you say ‘Britain’ do you mean England. Scotland, a country in the Uk has their own climate targets, they are on track to reach those so far, they are very ambitious.
    Scotland has most of the capacity in the Uk for massive renewables. The Scottish government are investing hugely (within restrictions of budget because the English government take their massive revenues and send crumbs back) in wind and hydro power. Scotland’s large body of territorial waters have massive potential in terms of renewables which is why the Scottish government are setting out even more ambitious plans to mitigate climate change.
    Britain is not a country, not is the UK, it consists of four nations, each with different agendas and political and economic priorities. The SNP party in Scotland have invested where possible, in renewables, and Scotland has enough wind power to generate more than it needs. Quite a bit of Scottish generated energy is in fact taken to power England, keeping the lights on there. The National grid, in the UK, is controlled by the English government, they charge Scotland £millions to connect to the grid, more than the rest of the UK! In fact companies are paid £millions to connect to the grid, in London.
    When Johnson talks about energy or renewables resources, he has Scotland in mind, to use to offset his English governments’ lack of renewable energy investment.
    Britain is not a country, when the name is used it usually means England, unless the English government wants to take even more of Scotland’s resources, which if course they most certainly do.
    Just some thoughts to ponder.

    1. Yes, when I say Britain I essentially mean the Westminster government. I also use Britain interchangeably with the United Kingdom, which I know is not technically correct but is well understood internationally. This website has more readers outside the UK than in, and I do tend to gloss over regional nuance for sake of brevity.

      I also know that Scotland is, as you say, streets ahead of Westminster. I will try to be more specific, and feel free to keep pointing it out whenever you feel I’m being lazy!

  3. Well maybe the new target is ‘firmly in the good news column‘. But it doesn’t mean much in a global context. My comment just now on your ‘No Johnson, climate change is about survival’ story, provides yet another reminder of the harsh reality that most non-Western countries are either unconcerned about climate change or don’t regard it as a priority. Yet these countries are the source of 75% of global emissions. The UK is the source of less than 1%.

      1. But Jeremy this was a survey about ‘how news is being consumed in a range of countries’, not specifically about climate change: (see Methodology). In any case, so far as attitudes to climate change are concerned, it would seem to be another misleading one issue survey. It’s instructive to compare it with the UN ‘My World’ survey that had nearly 10 million responses in 2018: (Click on ‘Download original image’, and then expand for a better view of the detail). You’ll see that, when people are asked what issues most concern them, climate change appears last (of sixteen issues).

        This unsurprising finding was confirmed by a recent University of Warwick survey that revealed “climate-change complacency” across Europe: Unsurprisingly, people thought issues such as health, social security, prices, the economy and unemployment more important – with only 16% citing climate/environment/energy as a major concern. Had climate been specified on its own, I’m sure it would have been attracted even less concern.

        In any case, these polls don’t alter the fact that, judging by their actions over many years, the harsh reality that most non-Western countries are either unconcerned about climate change or don’t regard it as a priority.

  4. It’s not thin people who go on diets, so I expect Western countries to be the ones setting more ambitious targets.

    We’ve disagreed in the past about levels of interest and action elsewhere, and I’m not going to go over it again.

    1. I expect Western countries to be the ones setting more ambitious targets.

      The problem is that most non-Western countries aren’t setting any targets. As for your ‘thin people’ analogy, 32 ‘developing’ countries (including China, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea and Taiwan) plus Russia and Japan have greater per capita emissions than the EU and UK. Yet those 10 countries are the source of 47% of global emissions and the EU+UK only 9%.

      We’ve disagreed in the past about levels of interest and action elsewhere, and I’m not going to go over it again.

      Why not? It’s some time since we last discussed it and arguably it’s the most important climate change issue.

  5. Why not? Because it’s a waste of time. You have one line on climate change and you’ve been saying it for ten years: the real issue is developing countries.

    Case in point, you claim that “most non-Western countries aren’t setting any targets”. Then you list China, which has a net zero target for 2060. South Korea, net zero 2050. South Africa: net zero 2050 announced last year. Japan: also 2050.

    If I saw evidence that you update your views as facts change, I would be more willing to discuss things with you.

    1. When I said that “most non-Western countries aren’t setting any targets” I was referring to the IPCC requirement of cuts by 2030 if we’re to stay below 1.5ºC and avoid potential catastrophe. As for all those vague net-zero ‘aims’, you may have missed Greta Thunberg’s interview with the Guardian when she said ‘leaders were happy to set targets for decades into the future, but flinched when immediate action to cut emissions was needed.’

      Re updating my views as facts change, that’s precisely what I do. And what’s happening in the world causes my views to get firmer. A good example is what I said on your ‘No Johnson’ article about last week’s summit to which Biden had invited the leaders of 18 of the top 20 global emitting countries:

      First, note that just a few days before the summit, UN Secretary General António Guterres had described it as a ‘make it or break it moment for climate action’, warning that ‘the worst risk is that we don’t reach 1.5 degrees as a limit, that we go over it, and precipitate the world into a catastrophic situation’. He urged all major emitters to set targets for drastic emissions reductions this decade.

      So – how did they respond? Not well: of the 18 top emitters, only 5 (the US, Japan, Germany, Canada and the UK) announced a new target for 2030.

      In other words, it was an excellent example of what I’ve been saying for 10 years. And of course, if emissions are to be cut radically and urgently as many scientists say is necessary, it’s now far more serious than it was in 2011. If the world is to comply with what Guterres and Thunberg say is essential, non-Western countries must change their policies. Yet they show no serious interest in so doing. Surely this is extraordinarily important? But you decline even to discuss it.

  6. But you just did it again: “non-Western countries must change their policies” as if that’s all one category, and as if Western countries are all doing fine.

    I do discuss this, week in and week out, on the blog. As I have done for 15 years. I just won’t discuss it specifically with you, in the comments section, because we’ve done it so many times before.

    1. It’s obviously true that, unless most non-Western countries (the source of 75% of global emissions) reverse their climate policies, there’s no possibility of staying under the 18.5 Gt p.a. by 2030 that the IPCC says is necessary to stay below 1.5ºC; and few show any serious interest in so doing. That’s a statement of fact, not opinion. If emission reduction is crucial, that’s the overriding issue. (And it doesn’t mean ‘Western countries are all doing fine’.)

      I read your blog regularly. And I have never seen you discuss that specific overriding issue.

        1. this west/rest division is reductive and unhelpful.

          I disagree: it’s derived from the way the UN categorises countries, in particular in relevant agreements and treaties – see for example the UNFCCC: And it’s on this basis that all major databases report on emissions. As such, its use is unavoidable and helpful in considering what’s happening in the world.

          As we’ve discussed before, it would of course be interesting and probably very useful if we were able to base discussion on, for example, how wealth is distributed around the world. But it’s almost impossible to get reliable data. For example, out of Germany’s 80 million how many can be described as wealthy and how does that compare with India with its population of 1.3 billion, of whom most are very poor but some are undeniably wealthy?

          1. And as previously discussed, I think dividing the world artificially into the west and the rest is part of the problem. So if you want a discussion about climate solutions that entrenches that distinction, you’ll have to seek it elsewhere.

            1. I have no interest in ‘entrenching’ that distinction – as I said above, I’m very interested in discussing, for example, how wealth is distributed around the world. The significance of the West/RoW distinction however is that almost all the governments of the former are active in reducing emissions whereas almost all the governments of the latter are not. And, as it’s governments that make decisions and take part in international meetings and negotiations, the distinction is – unfortunately perhaps – most important. For example, it was the UNFCCC – not me – that created the bifurcation between developed and developing countries.

    1. It is simplistic, unhelpful, and fundamentally untrue to say that ‘almost all’ governments of the west are active and ‘almost all’ of the rest are not.

      That’s incorrect. The West consists essentially of the EU27, UK, US, Canada, Australia, NZ, Norway and Switzerland. And all, except perhaps Australia (and the Australian government says it’s trying), have policies in place that are intended to reduce their emissions between now and 2030. It’s hard to identify many (if any) other countries – except perhaps Japan (an ‘honourable’ Western country) – that have similar policies in place. Perhaps you can demonstrate where I’ve got that wrong?

      That OWID map (where it’s amusing to see the evil Trump’s America apparently doing well) provides data for one year. And that can be misleading. For example, go here: and you’ll see that, although Turkey’s emissions did fall between 2018 and 2019 as shown on the map, overall they’ve been rising almost year-on-year since 1970. So, I suggest, the OWID map is interesting but not very helpful. You may find this easier to use:

        1. I asked if you could identify any non-Western countries that had policies in place that are intended to reduce their emissions between now and 2030. As you suggested, I’ve read back ‘this very comment thread’ looking for your identification examples. I found none.

          But enough of this – you’re clearly not willing to reconsider your rejection of the view that the principal reason why global CO2 emissions keep rising is because most non-Western countries are either unconcerned about climate change or have other, more pressing priorities.

          Anyway, my best wishes. And bye for now – Robin.

  7. Let me quote you from the top: “The problem is that most non-Western countries aren’t setting any targets.”

    Then you’ve moved the goalposts to 2030 specific targets, then to ‘non-western’ countries that are reducing emissions, and then moved on to demanding examples of policies, in all case falsely insisting that there are no examples.

    Clearly, you’re not actually interested in the answers.

    1. No moving of goalposts – I was clarifying what I meant; a perfectly respectable thing to do. My request was for examples of non-Western countries that have policies in place that are intended to reduce their emissions between now and 2030. If the IPCC has got it right, that’s the critical issue. You say it’s false to say there are no such examples. Good: in that case, it must be easy to provide a few. Please do so. I’ll be very interested in your answer.

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