Earlier this month, the Prime Minister announced that 2020 will be a “defining year of climate action”. IF Researcher Melissa Bui outlines some of the changes we should be expecting to take place this year
With the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) due to be held in Glasgow this November, there has been a growth in expectations for the British government to take a lead role in climate diplomacy. International cooperation is key to successfully combating climate change and Britain could use its connections with both big and small economies and its economic power to encourage international cooperation on climate change.
According to Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s policy director, the only option is to “lead by example, or [Britain] won’t lead at all”. With many countries worldwide already taking frontline action in different areas of climate change, drastic rethinking is needed to current climate change policy for the UK to establish itself as a key player.
According to Boris Johnson, this is just what the government intends to do this year. At the official launch of COP26 earlier this month, he took the opportunity to announce that 2020 will be a “defining year of climate action”. What could some of these key changes in store for 2020 be?
Substituting fossil fuel cars for electric vehicles
Mr Johnson also announced at the launch of COP26 that the deadline for banning new gas, diesel and hybrid car sales would be pulled forward from 2040 to 2035 – shortening the time horizon for implementation by five years.
The decision to revise the deadline was precipitated by pressure from experts, who warned that implementing the ban by 2040 would not leave enough time to phase out the use of fossil fuel cars by the 2050 target. According to the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, this ban could be pulled forward even further to 2032, depending on the outcome of government consultations.
However, this pledge is at risk of becoming an empty promise if the government does not present a substantial plan for how it will be achieved. For a future without fossil fuel cars to be feasible, adjustments need to be made to facilitate the use of low or zero-emission alternatives.
From the consumer point-of-view, there are already some financial incentives in place to encourage the substitution of petrol and diesel cars for electric alternatives. For instance, the Plug-In grant is a government scheme which subsidises purchases of eligible low-emission cars by up to £3,500. By April 2020, electric company vehicles will also be exempt from paying Benefit-In-Kind tax.
From the perspective of a car manufacturer however, there are concerns over how the expected growth in demand will be met. The industry has already faced difficulties with shortages in lithium and, more recently, cobalt – key materials needed in the manufacturing process. It is also unclear how the government plans to get the necessary infrastructure in place as the need for charging points grows.
The Agricultural Bill
While banning fossil fuel cars would make UK policy more in sync with EU countries that have made the same commitment – such as Germany, Ireland or the Netherlands – the proposed Agricultural Bill will have the opposite effect. The Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 16 January, is the proposed replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and lays bare the government’s intentions to diverge from EU agricultural policy.
If passed into law, the changes that it would bring are radical. Where the CAP system rewarded farmers based on the quantity of agricultural land they managed, the Agricultural Bill will reward farmers based on their contribution to “public goods”, including clean air, high water quality and measures that reduce flooding risk.
However, there are worries over whether the UK is excessively distancing itself from EU climate policy, since there is no mention in the Bill of whether certain standards that have been set under EU policy – such as for meat production and animal welfare, including for particular wildlife like hedgehogs – will still be protected. Other politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn have requested more reassurance that these will be upheld, particularly given the pressure from US lobbyists to lower beef production standards to enable more UK-US trade.
Reducing illegal deforestation worldwide
Not all of the climate action facilitated by the government in 2020 will take place within UK borders. The government has also promised to use its power to help developing countries better tackle illegal deforestation – a key contributor to rising global greenhouse emissions.
In this field, the specific areas where the Department for International Development plans to provide assistance are: supporting responsible forestry, enhancing the ability to enforce illegal deforestation laws, and providing on-the-ground assistance.
Goals without a plan?
These goals have been welcomed by climate activists, but as Doug Parr has pointed out, “we don’t need more long-term targets and pledges, we need concrete measures.”
If Britain is wanting to demonstrate its climate leadership on the international stage, it is crucial that the government is transparent about its intended strategies at the COP26 summit. The COP26 will bring together around 200 world leaders who will aim to agree on a new, long-term deal on rising temperatures. As such, it is considered the most important climate change event since the Paris Agreement in 2015.
However, we may not need to wait until November to see where the government’s priorities lie. Budget 2020, which is due to be announced next month on 11 March, has been recognised as an ideal opportunity for the government to demonstrate what measures it plans to take.
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