Thomas Vazakas | RPS Group
In 2008, Parliament introduced the Climate Change Act. The Act, which is independent from European Union (EU) legislation, established a legally binding target to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. The recent vote to leave the EU does not change this commitment.
To drive progress and set the UK on a pathway towards this target, the Act introduced a system of carbon budgets to be produced in successive five year periods that are designed to help meet the target by providing legally binding limits on emissions. The carbon budgets are a way to achieve the UK’s long-term targets in the most effective way possible by setting goals 16 years in advance. By providing benchmarks towards the 2050 target, the carbon budgets ensure that policy makers and investors plan accordingly.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in June 2016 published its annual report on the UK’s progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting carbon budgets. The report shows that emissions have fallen by 38% below 1990 levels in 2015, which is above the first three carbon budgets. However, the reductions have come almost exclusively in the power sector, as a result of reduced use of coal and increased generation of electricity from renewables and nuclear. On the other hand, there has been a slow uptake of low-carbon technologies and behaviours in the buildings sector. Improved vehicle efficiency has been offset by increased demand for travel. There is also minimal evidence of progress in the industrial and agriculture sectors.
At the end of June 2016, the Government published the Fifth Carbon Budget, in line with the agreed timeframes. The budget sets a target for emission cuts of 57% from 1990 levels by 2030. This figure was recommended last autumn by CCC, which advises the government on the issue. The House of Lords passed the Carbon Budget Order 2016 on 19 July, making the budget and its target law. A bill passed in early July to abolish the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and absorb its functions, including the CCC, into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, will not affect the implementation of the Carbon Budget.
Meeting the targets set by the Fifth Carbon Budget, UK will have to cut carbon emissions, including those from power, transport and buildings. The biggest savings on emissions are expected to be made by decarbonisation of the grid, by shifting from conventional coal and gas fired power generation to nuclear and renewable sources and new technologies such as carbon capture and storage. Therefore we are likely to see more applications for onshore wind and solar power schemes on low value sites, and increased pressure on local authorities to approve such schemes. This may require greater weight to be given to the national need for sustainable energy, and less to the impact of the schemes on local communities.
Greater use of heat networks to supply heat to homes, businesses and schools through insulated hot water pipes heated by a central heat source, is foreseen in the budget. If this central heat source is powered by biofuels then emissions will be less than if each building had its own gas boiler. As heat networks usually use the waste heat produced from producing electricity (so Combined Heat and Power), CO2 emissions are less even if the fuel source is natural gas. The local scale of such networks makes them an obvious area for local authorities to take the lead in policy.
We may also see more development consent order (DCO) applications for major infrastructure schemes such as pipes and cables to facilitate the rollout of heat networks. A relaxation of the planning regime to support such projects without requiring a DCO application may also encourage their spread. It is possible that applicants with low-carbon schemes or with district heating will increasingly cite compatibility with the fifth carbon budget as a material consideration in showing sustainable development under the NPPF. Encouraging a focus on developing heat networks and ensuring that all current and future developments can connect to one will also contribute. This means wet central heating systems and improving insulation as well as greater investment in low carbon technologies.