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Ministers could use loophole to water down carbon reduction commitments

<span>The Climate Change Act allows ministers to count surplus emissions savings towards the next carbon budget – but campaigners say the UK is ‘already 'substantially off track for 2030’.</span><span>Photograph: David Davies/PA</span>
The Climate Change Act allows ministers to count surplus emissions savings towards the next carbon budget – but campaigners say the UK is ‘already 'substantially off track for 2030’.Photograph: David Davies/PA

Ministers will be able to water down the UK’s carbon reduction commitments if the government chooses to take advantage of a legal loophole.

The UK overachieved on meeting its third five-year carbon budget, which ran from 2018 to 2022, requiring reductions of 38% compared with 1990 levels. The emissions cap for the budget was 2,544 megatons of CO2 equivalent, but the actual emissions were 391 MtCO2e fewer, or 15% below the budget.

The substantial fall was thanks in part to the effects of the lockdowns imposed under the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, ministers are allowed to count the surplus of emissions savings, compared with the budgetary requirement, towards the next carbon budget. That would make the next budget easier to meet, but could also slow the UK’s path towards meeting net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

On Wednesday, the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s statutory adviser, wrote to the climate minister, Graham Stuart, urging him “unequivocally” not to exploit the surplus by loosening current and future carbon budgets.

Piers Forster, interim chair of the committee, said: “We congratulate the government on meeting the latest emissions target – the Climate Change Act is working. But the path ahead is tougher and we risk losing momentum if future legal targets are loosened on a technicality. The UK is already substantially off track for 2030, and the government must resist the temptation to take their foot off the accelerator.”

When the third carbon budget was set, the UK’s legally binding target was to cut emissions by 80% by 2050. That was raised to a commitment to reach net zero by 2050 as one of Theresa May’s last acts while prime minister, a toughening that means future carbon budgets need to be much more stringent.

Related: UK ministers in court again over net zero plans

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned last year that the UK was not likely to meet its 2030 commitments under current trajectories. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, further weakened some of the government’s net zero policies last September, which the committee warned would further harm the country’s ability to meet the targets.

The government could make a decision before the general election to carry forward the surplus in carbon savings to the next carbon budget. Caroline Lucas, the only MP for the Green party, called on ministers to push ahead instead.

“Advice from the UK Climate Change Committee has been unequivocal: the UK’s climate target will be under serious threat if the government uses the unexpected drop in UK emissions during Covid to justify less action and ambition in future carbon budgets,” she said.

“The UK is already dangerously behind on our 2030 targets – now is the time to speed action up, not find new excuses to dither and delay.”

Mike Childs, head of science, research and policy at Friends of the Earth, said: “Climate extremes are already battering the planet and causing havoc around the world, with those who’ve contributed least to climate breakdown facing the very worst impacts. The CCC is right to urge the government to hold steadfast on its climate targets and refrain from relaxing them at such a critical moment.

“As research published this week has shown, the green economy is absolutely booming, having grown 9% over the last year compared to the wider economy which has all but ground to a halt. We know that action on climate change is good for jobs, health, our public finances and ultimately the planet. Rishi Sunak promised world leaders in 2022 that the UK will meet its target to reduce emissions by two thirds by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. If he breaks his word, what remains of his credibility will be lost for good, and the UK can expect to continue on its downward trajectory as a nation in decline.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said: “We are the first major economy to halve emissions and have the most ambitious legally binding emissions targets in the world. We have overdelivered on every carbon budget to date and will continue to meet our emissions targets.”

They added: “Following the process set out in the Climate Change Act, we will review the advice of the Climate Change Committee and consult devolved administrations before taking any decision on whether the UK’s overachievement on the third carbon budget is carried over.”