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Climate Change Act 2008 (Credit Limit) Order 2021

Volume 812: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2021

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Climate Change Act 2008 (Credit Limit) Order 2021.

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I beg to move that this order, which was laid before the House on 13 May 2021, be approved.

The question of how we act on climate change is perhaps one of the most pressing issues of our time. Climate change is here—this Government absolutely accept that and are determined that the UK play its part in upholding the Paris Agreement and driving down our own greenhouse gas emissions. This Government are committed to decarbonising the UK economy while of course, at the same time, driving economic growth, and to meeting our ambitious targets for net zero emissions by 2050. We were the first major economy in the world to set a legally binding target to reach net zero carbon emissions across our economy by 2050, and we have shown that rapid progress on decarbonisation is possible alongside a thriving economy. Our emissions are down by almost 44% across the last 30 years and our economy has grown by 78% during the same period. We are currently in the process of reaching a significant milestone in approving legislation to enshrine the UK’s sixth carbon budget in law, proposing a target that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels. This is a huge commitment and one which the Government are working flat out to achieve.

Turning to the topic of today’s debate, under the Climate Change Act 2008 the Government must set a limit on the number of international carbon units that can be credited to the net UK carbon account for each budgetary period. These carbon credits represent the reduction or removal of greenhouse gas emissions overseas. The legislation we are debating today sets a limit on the net number of international carbon credits that may be used to meet the fourth carbon budget, which runs from 2023 to 2027. The Climate Change Act, passed with near unanimous support in this House, allows for the flexibility of using carbon credits to meet a carbon budget. The order will set the credit limit for the fourth carbon budget at 55 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is about 2.8% of the total carbon budget. This is the same amount of flexibility as the House agreed for the second and third carbon budget credit limit orders. However, I highlight that this legislation does not commit the UK Government to buying international credits: as we have witnessed with previous carbon budgets, the Government have a strong track record of delivering clean growth and have not used any of our allowances on other budgets to date.

We continue to put forward ambitious plans to meet future carbon budgets, including through our bold sector strategies, and are committed to meeting our world-leading targets through domestic action. Noble Lords should be aware that the credit limit set through this legislation excludes any net use of credits that result from the operation of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme. The exclusion is required because, while the UK Emissions Trading Scheme replaced the UK’s participation in the EU ETS on 1 January 2021, Northern Ireland electricity generators continue to participate in the EU ETS and will therefore receive EU ETS allowances within the fourth budgetary period.

The role of the Climate Change Committee in providing independent expert advice to government on climate change mitigation and adaptation is widely accepted as global best practice. The Government’s net zero target covers the whole of the UK, and all four parts of the union have an integral role to play in delivering the Government’s carbon budgets leading up to 2050. As such, we of course also work closely with our partners in the devolved Administrations in order to achieve our climate goals.

In determining the appropriate credit limit for the fourth carbon budget, which is the subject of the present discussion, the Government have considered the advice of the Climate Change Committee and the views of the devolved Administrations. All parties agree that the purchase of international credits should not replace domestic abatement when delivering our net zero target. While the Climate Change Committee and the devolved Administrations recommended a zero-credit limit, the Government have concluded that it is best to maintain a small amount of flexibility over the fourth carbon budget period.

As a Government, we have undertaken our own robust analysis to validate our position and have considered the range of factors required by the Act, including the economic, fiscal, social, scientific and international circumstances. We judge that this flexibility will continue to ensure that the Government can best deliver our carbon targets more effectively and be resilient to unexpected changes in future emissions.

We are extremely grateful to our independent advisers for their expert analysis and advice, and to the devolved Administrations for their valuable ongoing engagement. We look forward to working closely on the fundamental decisions that we will need to take over the coming years in order to drive forward this progress.

The Government recognise the significant advantages that the net zero transition can bring, in addition to the essential benefits of ending our contribution to global warming. Now is the time to double down and decrease our emissions further and faster. Ahead of COP 26, we will bring forward further bold proposals, including our net zero strategy, to cut emissions and create new jobs and industries across the whole country, going further and faster towards building a stronger, more resilient future and protecting our planet for this generation and those to come.

As for the legislation for debate today, the Government’s sustained drive ensures that we are on track for the fourth carbon budget. However, as we have outlined, in our view it is still prudent to allow ourselves a small amount of flexibility in the future in order to manage the uncertainty in emissions projections and to continue to deliver emissions reductions in the most prudent and fair manner for the whole of the UK. I therefore commend this order to the House.

My Lords, the Government are to be congratulated on the progress they are making so far and on not drawing down credits from abroad. However, the going might get tougher now. We have probably taken into account quite a lot of the low-hanging fruit, and getting nearer to the target will demand more and more effort.

The resistance of the transport industry to economy in CO2 is notorious. Interestingly, in a referendum this weekend the Swiss voted not to take on board some of the tougher decisions that need to be made if people really are going to economise in the use of transport. Economy is particularly needed in air transport and in diesel and petrol-fuelled motor transport.

The Minister said that we are keeping some overseas credits at our disposal, but could he venture to suggest whether this will really happen? If we undertake to plant 2 million acres of forest in the United Kingdom, we can be fairly certain that that will be done and measured. If we are relying on other countries to take carbon-hungry technologies or practices out of commission, it will be much more difficult to monitor whether they actually do so and whether the climate in fact ends up benefiting.

So, it is good to see that we will rely more on ourselves, because that is only prudent for an economy that prides itself on being at the forefront in this regard. However, if the going is to get harder and as decisions become more difficult—for example, if there are to be restrictions on how and when people use their cars—we will come up against resistance. The Government will need great resolve if they are to stick to their guns and make sure that we secure the anticipated carbon reductions.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who has such a breadth of knowledge in this area, particularly in the realm of transport.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out the effect of this order. Before I turn to it, I congratulate the Government on adopting the sixth carbon budget from the Climate Change Committee, covering the five-year period from 2033 to 2037. Doing so will set in law the ambition of slashing emissions by 78% by 2035, based on 1990 emissions levels. Also, significantly, this carbon budget will incorporate the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions for the first time; that is most important. Indeed, this was an issue at Paris and since. I warmly welcome this.

The budget keeps us on track with the Paris Agreement goals. It is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made. We have overachieved against the first and second carbon budgets, and we are on target to outperform against the third. In the light of the significant cuts in greenhouse gases across the economy, in industry in particular and in the power sector, it is worth pausing to congratulate the Government on the success we have had. It is heartening, too, to see the G7 in a better place on this following strong leadership from President Biden and others—including, indeed, our own Prime Minister.

The order relates to the fourth carbon budget, from 2023-27. It limits the net use of carbon units for this budgetary period to 55 million carbon units or 55 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That sounds concerning, but it follows the approach taken in previous budgets, and we have not used those carbon units at all. I understand that—it provides headroom for flexibility; the only danger, of course, is that it sends out a slightly contrary signal. On the other hand, it is most important that Governments are judged by what they do. Judged on the actions, we have a good story to tell, although more needs to be done.

The Minister and the Government have announced that they do not intend to use this facility, intending instead, as in previous budgets, to draw solely on domestic action to fulfil the ambitious budgets that have been set. I accept totally that this is the Government’s intention, and they are likely to achieve that aim based on past action. I support that flexibility. I accept that there is an argument about the signal sent, but it is more important that we have that flexibility.

Ahead of COP 26, can the Minister please seek to ensure positive action in other areas, in particular promoting electric cars, buses and other forms of transport, and battery storage and production? That is important for achieving our climate change aims, but it would also boost the economy. This follows on from the Stern report during the 2000s, and subsequently it has become clear that it is possible to achieve positive growth at the same time as reducing emissions, as the Government have demonstrated. But it is important that we press ahead with the electric transport market and the battery storage market in particular, in which we can be world leaders.

I want to ask the Minister about two issues. He touched on both but I want to push him a little further, if I may. First, when will we receive the carbon budget for discussion in the House, with a view to ensuring that it is put into legislation? Are we still going to get it by the end of June, as originally intended? If not, when can we expect it? Secondly, will Northern Ireland, to which the Minister referred, continue to be treated separately? I was both an Energy Minister and in the Northern Ireland Office, so I know that the Northern Ireland market is separate. Will a separate position for Northern Ireland present any particular challenges regarding the EU ETS system?

In conclusion, I am keen to encourage the Government to take stronger action ahead of COP 26. We are in a strong position but clearly, more needs to be done. Overachieving in this area is certainly not a bad thing. I strongly support the order before us.

That was a very interesting introduction from the Minister. I would like to explain the whole concept of urging economic growth when we live on a planet with finite resources, but I will have to leave that for another day. I would like to tackle quite a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said that making reductions is going to require more effort, which is absolutely true. He also asked whether we can trust other countries’ measurements—that is a perfectly true point—and talked about a stronger, more resilient future. I would argue that this Government do not have a clue how to get us to that future. It is going to take government resolve, the noble Lord said. Resolve is not something this Government are very good at. They are very good at making promises—and at breaking them.

The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, congratulated the Climate Change Committee on its budget and said that the Government had overachieved. They overachieved by cheating, essentially, by not including shipping or aviation. That is how they cut carbon emissions. Of course, they have now included those, so we might actually get some more accurate figures. The noble Lord also mentioned the G7 and said how wonderful the Government were. The most leaderly thing I saw at the G7 was President Macron telling the UK to honour its treaty promises. Let us hope that the Government will do so.

For me, this statutory instrument is nothing more than an accounting trick that takes us further away from tackling the climate emergency and runaway global heating. The Government should be ashamed of themselves for not listening to the Committee on Climate Change, which said that these credits should be set at zero, as the Minister said. However, the Government knew better and instead of listening to what the Minister called “independent, expert advice” from the committee, chose to do their own “robust analysis” of the situation and came up with a different answer. Which part of government did that robust analysis? I would really like to know, so that I can target my comments a little more closely.

So, instead of following the advice, which was to set these limits at zero, the Government have allowed for an additional 55 million tonnes of CO2 to be spewed into the UK atmosphere and then bought back from other countries. Essentially, the Government are like a fire brigade that says, “We’re going to let these 55 houses burn to the ground, but it’s okay because we’ve paid for 55 houses in other countries to be saved—and it’s cheaper anyway”. That is the most appalling way to run a country and an even worse way of trying to deal with runaway climate change, which is what we are facing.  It is absurd to try to trade these things when we should all be racing towards net zero across the world.

The Government talk about showing global leadership, but then they create loopholes to avoid doing much of anything. I accept that they have made moves in the right direction, including adding shipping and aviation when counting CO2 emissions, but how are other countries going to look up to this Government on anything to do with climate change when they will not listen to their own Climate Change Committee, which gives them independent expert advice? Quite honestly, the Government are cheating the system, and I think it is appalling. Each time I get a glimmer of hope that this Government understand the real emergency we are facing and the damage it could do to all of us, the rest of the planet and every economy worldwide, my hopes are dashed by statutory instruments such as this.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this statutory instrument, which could not have been clearer. Its clarity is the reason I oppose the order. It is clear that it is unnecessary, ill-advised and sends precisely the wrong messages about what we as a nation will do when the going gets tough on meeting our climate change targets. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and other noble Lords have said, and as the Minister pointed out, it is opposed by the Climate Change Committee, the Government of Scotland and the Government of Wales.

The Government have two arguments that they deploy in favour of these 55 million credits. First, they say they are on track to meet the fourth carbon budget, but they need to have flexibility just in case they do not. The Minister told us that 55 million credits were in place for the second and third carbon budgets. While I think there should be zero credits, in line with the views of the Climate Change Committee, the least the Government could have done is to begin to ratchet them down as a proportion of the budget. The Minister said that they represented 2.8% of the budget; he could have brought that down to 1% or 1.5%, but he and the Government have chosen not to do and are sending very worrying signals about what they will do.

The Minister said, as the Explanatory Memorandum points out at paragraph 7.5, that the UK is currently projected to meet the fourth carbon budget. The Climate Change Committee says that the Government are not on track to meet the fourth or the fifth carbon budget, so I wonder whether he can explain that discrepancy and who is advising the Government on their projections to meet the climate change budget.

The second argument that the Government use is:

“The ability to purchase credits could also enable the UK to support mitigation action in developing countries. A purchase of credits would contribute to the development of a global carbon market, which would reduce the global cost of action on climate change.”

This is of course an utterly spurious argument. Nothing would prevent the Government, if they set the credit limit at zero, purchasing credits and contributing to supporting developing countries in this way. This measure is a “get out of jail free” card for the Government when they start finding things difficult, and it is clear that things are going to be much more difficult politically if we are to meet our targets. We all know that. We know that the decarbonisation of our economy to date has been driven largely by the decarbonisation of the power sector. Although that has had impacts on the public, they have been indirect, and they are very different from what will happen as we move forward.

We absolutely need a signal of resolution from the Government and not a signal that they have a way out of this, not least because we are talking here about the fourth carbon budget, which, as I have said, the Climate Change Committee says we are not on track to meet. The fifth and sixth carbon budgets are much more demanding. If the Government are giving themselves wriggle room already on these budgets, it sends a very worrying signal.

There is an Arab proverb which I often quote in the context of climate change, because it is very apposite: commitments are cloud, but implementation is rain. This Government are extremely good at making commitments; they are extremely poor at bringing forward the actions needed to implement them. Not only are they bad at acting to implement them; they often do the opposite. Whether it is air passenger duty, coal mines or in other areas, not only do they not act but they do not signal the action that is needed. I hope that we can retain the cross-party consensus that existed when we set these targets, so that we can act to meet them. But we all need to work together and show absolute commitment to doing that, and we must not give ourselves wriggle room to get out of the commitments we have made.

Once again, the Committee meets to consider important matters concerning climate change. I thank the Minister for his explanation of the order before us. It follows the well-worn pathway of setting credit limits for the first three carbon budgets of 55 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent as flexibility insurance in meeting the UK’s legal obligations. As we have seen, there has been no need to utilise these credits for the first two carbon budgets, and the UK is on target to meet the third carbon budget. The Government are to be congratulated on that. They are also to be congratulated on accepting the advice of the Climate Change Committee on setting the carbon budgets. Last week, the committee approved a sixth carbon budget for the years 2032 to 2037. This CCC advice was endorsed also by the devolved Administrations.

However, there, the congratulations must end. It has not been generally accepted, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, queried, that the Government are on course to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets and they have had to have a reset, with additional targets, to get back on track, as we discussed last week. The Government have gathered in the low-hanging fruit from earlier years, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and done the least development possible, paring back the budget and policies from necessary support for climate action.

The Government have now responded on the realisation of the climate emergency by setting net-zero targets for 2050 in accordance with the Paris Agreement to limit global warming, but they continue with self-congratulatory rhetoric, setting targets without clear action plans. As we discussed last week, they must come forward with policies, plans and strategies and engage in meeting these budget commitments.

It must be recognised that this order, which sets the traditional credit limit, goes against the advice of the Climate Change Committee, which was again endorsed by the devolved Administrations. That advice was to set a nil credit limit—that is, not to allow the purchase of carbon credits from overseas. Yes, none has been required in the past, but the CCC is right in its determination that the UK must meet its carbon emissions reductions domestically. It recommended that international emissions credits should not be allowed to be used to meet the fourth carbon budget and, furthermore, that any surplus from the third carbon budget should not be carried forward.

It is recognised that the UK Government intend to meet the new NDC and the 2030 target without the use of international credits. Inventory uncertainty projections and forecast inaccuracies are also recognised —they have always existed—but it is now time for clear actions, real leadership and determined signalling that the UK is meeting its obligations entirely through its own domestic obligations, as well as now taking the lead on international aviation and shipping.

I have just one question on the future development of policy. One necessary priority must be the development of batteries and energy storage; the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, identified this in his appreciation of this order. Can the Minister outline where and in which strategy and plan this priority will be answered by government plans, among the many opportunities they have identified?

I am nearly finished.

The reasons given in the Explanatory Memorandum for continuing with budgetary insurance are no longer convincing. Sufficient flexibility must be managed through domestic commitments; offsetting is not a sustainable way forward. Unforeseen circumstances cannot provide a justification, and the UK has not previously contributed to the development of the global carbon market with any impact. The opportunity to purchase credits will only diminish as the world steps up with commitments to decarbonise. Consider the damage that would ensue should the Government need to go ahead with a carbon credit. They must self-insure and develop robust policies and plans to meet all the carbon budgets with clarity and certainty.

This is a missed opportunity that the Government could have taken as a decisive step, in this decisive decade, toward emissions reductions. This conclusion was also recognised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, in her remarks. The 2030 NDCs submitted at the UNFCCC last December should have set the tone. The sixth carbon budget will require more ambition and the pace of change to accelerate over the coming years. The confidence that could have been set by a zero-credit limit in this order needs to be corrected by the determination and announcement of policy developments before COP 26 later this year. I look forward to seeing the UK outperform and deliver. Labour understands the size of the task. The challenge is set.

First, I thank all noble Lords for their extremely valuable contributions to this debate.

This year, we in the UK find ourselves in the privileged position of being the president of the G7 and the host of COP 26. We are determined to use these key international moments, as noble Lords saw at the G7 earlier this week, to promote ambitious action to deliver the transformational change required by the Paris Agreement. In line with this, it is imperative that we continue to be bold and ambitious in not only our commitments but our actions, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, pointed out, to deliver progress against climate change.

To reiterate what I said earlier, our position remains that the Government intend to meet all our targets through domestic abatement. International credits merely afford us a potential flexibility to ensure a cost-effective approach to reducing carbon emissions when managing uncertainty in historic and future emissions.

As usual, we have had a very interesting debate. I will pick up on some of the points raised. We acknowledge the progress pointed to by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Bourne, and the success we have had so far in decarbonising the UK economy to date. Many developing countries plan to sell credits in future, but my noble friend is absolutely right that these must be of the very highest quality. We are using our international climate finance to ensure that developing countries have the capacity to meet this bar and access finance through the carbon market.

On the action that the Government are taking to decarbonise transport, which my noble friend Lord Bourne also asked about, we recently announced that the UK is embarking on a comprehensive transport decarbonisation plan. This will be a bold, ambitious programme of the co-ordinated action needed to end the UK’s transport greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and, at the same time, ensure that the transport sector plays its part in delivering our legally binding carbon budgets. The plan will think in terms of not only modes of transport but technology and places. Part 1 of the plan was published in March 2020, with part 2, containing policies and proposals, expected to be published shortly.

We will also commit to communicating our public engagement approach to our net-zero strategy to generate widespread awareness, and, hopefully, acceptance, across the UK, because achieving the net-zero target will be a shared endeavour requiring action from everyone in society—people, businesses and government. Therefore, we are increasing our work on public engagement on net zero, both in communicating the challenge and in giving people a say on shaping future policies.

I have addressed a number of my noble friend Lord Bourne’s questions, but I am sorry to tell him that he missed the debate on the most recent carbon budget. It was debated in this House last week; the noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Grantchester, were present, with a couple of other Peers. It still has to go to the House of Commons, but I am afraid that my noble friend has missed his opportunity to contribute to that one.

On Northern Ireland and the emissions trading scheme, Northern Ireland power plants have remained in the ETS under the Northern Ireland protocol, but all other emissions in Northern Ireland remain under the UK Government’s coverage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked why we chose not to set a credit limit at zero tonnes, as was recommended by the Climate Change Committee. I can tell her that the Government intend to meet our net-zero target and our interim carbon budgets through cutting our domestic carbon emissions. As I said earlier, we are simply choosing to maintain the limited tools that we already have under the Climate Change Act to ensure that we can deliver on our carbon targets at the lowest possible cost, including the option of using international credits. Our internal analysis reaffirmed that this level is suitable to account for any potential uncertainties.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, implied that we could have sought to deliver a lower level for the credit limit order. Again, I remind him that our analysis indicates that any lower level might not provide sufficient flexibility to manage the uncertainty associated with the inventory using only credits.

The noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Grantchester, asked whether the Government are on track to meet carbon budgets 4 and 5. We are taking decisive action to ensure that we deliver on both. Ahead of COP 26, we will set out our ambitious plans across key sectors of the economy, such as the energy White Paper and the industrial decarbonisation strategy. These will build on the strong recent progress that we set out in the 10-point plan and will culminate with the net-zero strategy later in the year.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked about future carbon budgets. I remind him that this current legislation only concerns carbon budget 4, of course. We will consider the limit for carbon budgets 5 and 6 at the appropriate times in the future, using analysis that is relevant to the context at the time.

The noble Lord also raised the use of other flexibilities in the Climate Change Act 2008. In response, I want to make it clear that we have no intention of using any other flexibilities afforded to us through the Act and we intend to meet our ambitious targets purely through domestic action.

I conclude by saying that, as I mentioned in my opening speech, this statutory instrument effectively continues the status quo, setting the same credit limit that we have held but not used for carbon budgets 1 to 3. This status quo has allowed the Government to deliver world-leading emissions reductions and encourage similar ambition in other countries across the world. I therefore commend this draft order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.