What Does Covid-19 Mean For The UK's Climate Commitments?

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What Does Covid-19 Mean For The UK's Climate Commitments?


What are the UK's climate commitments and how can it hope to meet them in the midst of a global pandemic?

Climate change expert, Pyotr Kurzin, takes a long look at Britian's official commitments to climate change and where the country can go from here.

Pyotr Kurzin

Tue 5 May 2020

In a period of unprecedented uncertainties, it might not seem sensible considering the relationship of Covid-19 and climate change.

Yet, arguably, parallels can and should be drawn between the two. Ideas such as what governments and individuals choose to prioritise and how we want to respond to threats or emergencies should be top of our list.

Indeed, the UK's response to COVID-19 has drawn comparisons to the UK's climates policies, and it chooses to mitigate disruptions to its climate commitments.

For one, the COP-26 Climate Summit due to hosted by the UK in November 2020 has been postponed. This conferenced had marked the single most significant opportunity to progress in global climate commitments.

But with its cancellation, comes new questions.

What does this mean for climate commitments?

Or that of the UK's individual obligations?

Will COVID-19 mark a significant shift the UK's approach to these commitments or not?

Considering that, this post outlines how the UK's climate commitments have evolved and what the coronavirus outbreak may mean for meeting them.

Aerial shot of town and fields

Defining the UK's climate agenda

To adequately frame how significantly the UK's environmental commitments and policies may stray from their intended objectives due to the severity of the coronavirus, it is crucial to contextualise them.

The first place to look when considering the UK's climate commitments is the designated bill that was established to coordinate the UK's response. The Climate Change Act 2008, sets the foundations and frameworks for how the UK responds to climate change.

Over time it has been amended, as the urgency and understanding surrounding the processes and effects of climate change have advanced. But at the initial stage, the UK's targets and pledges stood at:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2025, based on 1990 emission rates
  • Further reducing the emissions by 80% by 2050, based on the same 1990s levels

Furthermore, to supposedly make achieving these longer-term targets more probable, the Act also mandated '5-year interim budgets' to track and assess progress against the 1990s levels. These are:

  1. 2008-2012 - achieve 25% emission reduction
  2. 2013-2017 - reduce emissions by 31%
  3. 2018-2022 – gain 37% in reductions
  4. 2023-2027 – reach 51% in emission reductions
  5. 2028-2032 – obtain 57% in reductions

However, there have been criticisms of the targets. Various reports, including an influential study by University College London, found that it wasn't so much the plan, but the government's execution of it.

In other words, the policies have the potential to produce improvements. But they are all voluntary, making their impact only as powerful as the departments are willing to implement them effectively.

This was something l personally picked up on when l helped advise the UK Trade Department on updating their climate policies in the light of the 2016 Brexit Referendum. It quickly became clear there were various disputes around what areas or industries should be included or not.

Plus, things were made more complex still, due to at the time, the UK having to meet the EU’s own climate commitments.

But now with the decision to leave the EU seemingly finalised, clarity surrounding just how these the UK’s commitments to the EU objectives will harder still due to all the renegotiations.

And to make things worse, there is a generational split, with older populations tending to remain sceptical of the climate crisis, compared to younger generations who are developing an ingrained scepticism around the true intentions of the government to honour climate targets.

And this becomes more complicated still once you begin to consider the complexity of trying to coordinate climate commitments across the globe.

Girl holding placard

There is a big generational divide in how we approach climate change

The UK's obligations in the global context

One needn't look further than Paris 2015 and the COP21 Conference for the best case.

Here, 196 countries signed a non-binding treaty to tackle climate change together, marking it as the clearest, collective agreement to limit climate temperatures to 1.5 Celsius. It was this specificity coupled with the number of signatories that made it so significant.

Yet, since the Summit, few countries have stuck to their individual targets. Or in the case of the US - which represents 25% of all global emissions (double that of China the second highest), has even left the treaty.

The keyword within all this is the non-binding element, as it means it's down to the signatory countries to follow their own goals without any enforcement.

And that's the core issue.

Similar to how someone might lack self-discipline when trying to establish a new habit, like getting out of bed consistently or sticking to a diet, it's unlikely they will succeed if they have no enforcement or try to rely on their own willpower. And sure, there will be exceptions to this, but many people will lack self-discipline if left to their own devices.

The same goes for governments and countries.


Because countries and governments are human constructs, granting them the same flaws as individual people.

So, if it is possible for a government to flout a climate agreement, which will likely require substantial restructuring of industries or societies values; or to simply continue with 'business as usual', governments will likely pick the latter. Simply because it is the easier option, and, when concerning politics, the preferred choice if it means it keeps voters happy, and them in power.

But again, there will be exceptions. There are many countries that do adhere to their respective commitments and prioritise collective interests over self-interests like numerous island nations or the Scandinavian region.

That said, in the final half of the 2010s following COP21, the threats from climate change are now much more commonly featured in discourse among the government, businesses and public. On top of the frequency is also the intensity of narratives.

Extinction Rebellion, the growth of veganism and zero-waste communities or the actions of Greta Thunberg. All these examples might have once been considered extreme, but they have moved into the mainstream.

Education and awareness have also expanded – one needn't look further than the Blue Planet 2 series which is heralded for helping to explode the plastic-free movements.

And it seems the government is finally listening.

It is captured best by the emergence of an unexpected, but particular and very significant 2019 report produced by the government's own Committee on Climate Change stating:

I put so much emphasis on this because of how suddenly it appeared, but also because it represents the most significant singular shift in UK policy since the Climate Change Act itself.

It marks the beginning of a top-down approach – the government getting involved, alongside the various bottom-up approaches – the actions by Extinction Rebellion, for instance.

Equally, it shows the government has now moved from a position of mere acknowledgement to one of proactivity to tackle the climate crisis.

London's about to get more water fountains
“Countries and governments are human constructs, granting them the same flaws as individual people”

COVID-19 and the climate crisis

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the UK government was on course to enact the most recognisable changes to its climate change approach in recent years.

The fact the COP26 Summit was to be held in Scotland is the clearest example, and a massive opportunity for the UK to really be a global leader with its climate commitments.

In early 2020, COP26 was heralded as the significant event to finally establish National Climate Plans (NDCs).

These specific plans would build on the COP21 with all signatories adopting bespoke strategies to achieve net-zero by 2050.

In this way, the UK really is displaying leadership, having already committed to going Net Zero by 2050.

However, COVID-19 has postponed COP26, and with it, the urgency of climate change.

Unsurprisingly, this has been the same with all other major nature-related conferences worldwide being delayed or ultimately cancelled.

These include summits aimed at biodiversity and ocean conversation, two conferences being acknowledged as essential indicators for achieving global emission reductions.

"What COVID-19 is illustrating is just how interconnected the world has become, and more importantly, how if we want to effectively overcome challenges, especially transnational ones like climate change, we cannot do so unilaterally"

And so, it means, even with its own proactivity, the UK remains at the mercy of the international community.

While the UK will be able to continue efforts to reduce its own emissions via domestic policies, this doesn't mean it will be capable of sticking to the targets mentioned above.

Primarily, because it relies on other countries, for resources, energy, trade, and so on.

Indeed, what COVID-19 is illustrating is just how interconnected the world has become, and more importantly, how if we want to effectively overcome challenges, especially transnational ones like climate change, we cannot do so unilaterally.

Moreover, while both COVID-19 and climate change represent the most prominent global challenges, the immediate threat from coronavirus warrants more attention.

How to carbon offset using wind farms

How can the UK stick to its Net Zero by 2050 promise?

History has shown there is the chance for subsequent waves to appear, which in the case of the Spanish Flu were worst than the first.

And so, with these uncertainties, coupled with ambiguity about how long social distancing measures could be enforced, makes it difficult to know when responses to the climate crisis could be continued.

Simply put, while COVID-19 is the most urgent crisis facing us now, climate change remains the most pressing challenge in the long-term.

But whether COVID-19 offers opportunity or loss depends on our choices.

What COVID-19 might mean for the future

As the outbreak has spread, people have been forced to quarantine, resulting in economic output stalling, global emissions plummeting...but the environment being rejuvenated.

We have seen clear water in Venice, animals reclaiming empty cities and the ability to see the sun again in places like China or India.

In extreme cases, some are even celebrating the coronavirus. These groups suggest the outbreak is positive for the environment due to the reductions in emissions, and that it has been needed to properly highlight the climate crisis. But this is misguided. While we should welcome when pressures on the environment are reduced, doing so by embracing a pandemic is not one of them.

factory chimneys with smoke in front of a river

Our global lockdown is a change to clear the air in many polluted cities

Undeniably, the scale of COVID-19 has many touting a paradigm shift in how people and society operate. What we prioritise. Or how we respond to emergencies.

And this includes how we perceive or interact with the environment.

Social distancing and quarantining have caused many to reconnect with nature, such as through daily exercise routines, as spaces to find solace during these challenging times and as places to unwind from the stresses of work.

Finding values in these spaces enables us to give them much more meaning and therefore, give them higher value.

And therefore, l want to stay optimistic, for two reasons.

1. On the one hand, COVID-19 has stalled the global economy with the IMF predicting it will produce the worst downturn since the Great Depression, inevitably meaning we must rebuild.

But on the other hand, this rebuilding provides the ideal opportunity to economically restructure too, and shift towards greener, cleaner energy.

2. Secondly, there is an awareness among people that this offers a perfect opportunity to improve how we treat and rely on the environment. And this isn't just coming from sustainability advocates, but businesses, politicians and alike.

People's reliance on nature for comfort and refugee has reignited an appreciation for how important it is, and therefore, a likely shift in what people prioritise.

And when people's priorities change, these become reflected in the actions and policies of the government. So, while things may seem bleak now if we are proactive, push for a shift in attitudes and cooperate, there may well be a silver lining.

Ultimately, the crisis of COVID-19 could create permanently a better outcome for all, if we don't treat the recovery as business as usual, but business for the future.

Pyotr Kurzin is a British-Russian based in Washington DC, and a Thematic Specialist for Amnesty International. Follow more of his content at My Global Muse.

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