The role of the Climate Change Committee in solving the net zero puzzle

7 July 2023

The role of the Climate Change Committee in solving the net zero puzzle

Reported by Charlie Wedd, PhD student, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

The Cambridge Zero Policy Forum met with Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC).

Chris began by outlining the role of the CCC as an independent advisory body which acts as a layer between academic research and government. One of their core functions is to advise the government on how to reach net zero. However, net zero is not the only goal on the horizon. The Climate Change Act also mandates legally binding intermediate targets that must be met: the five-yearly Carbon Budgets. Some key information the CCC provides to government are what these budgets should be, and a sector-by-sector breakdown of how they could be met. Chris explained how the seventh Carbon Budget will be more comprehensive than earlier ones, considering new sectors and an expanded range of impacts. We also learned about the CCC’s new and more detailed analysis of the impacts of climate change in the UK, and what this could mean for adaptation policy. A range of topics were discussed – here are the key themes.

1. The value of policy leadership in solving global challenges

The work of the CCC is focused on domestic policy, yet this does not preclude international impact. Climate change is a global crisis which must be solved by the collective efforts of self-interested nation states. If any nation demonstrates particularly successful domestic policies, or an effective model for policy making, then that may be adapted or used by other nations seeking to replicate that success back home.

To give an example, the CCC was established in 2008 under the Climate Change Act, which was the first legislation in the world to create a national framework for emissions reductions. Being independent and immune to changes of government, the CCC can make truly long-term plans to tackle climate change. Seeing the strengths of such a model, many nations have established similar laws and advisory bodies to oversee mitigation and adaptation efforts, such as the Finnish Climate Change Panel. Indeed, the European Union has also established its European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change.

The strength of domestic climate policy also has implications for foreign policy. It is very difficult to persuade others to take more action on climate if you yourself are doing very little. The task becomes far easier if you are doing considerably more than others. This simple principle, along with the earlier example of exporting successful policy, are two ways in which the impact of excellent climate policy can be amplified and effect change at a global level.

2. Leveraging corporate power to drive a green transition

Reaching net zero demands change from every sector of the economy, so it is inevitable that much of the change will need to be driven by the activities of businesses. It is now common for companies to set internal net zero goals, and they often strive to present themselves to the public as environmentally sustainable. But how can we be confident that companies are making meaningful progress, and what actions should they be taking to do so?

The first problem is that it is generally unknown how much carbon each company is emitting, and any available data is typically self-reported. This leads to issues of trust, as there is currently no legal oversight or guidance on how companies should account and report carbon. Furthermore, many claims of carbon neutrality by companies rely on cheap offsets, which are now widely regarded as ineffective at best. This makes it hard to know if and where progress is being made.

Secondly, a gap exists between what companies are doing to reduce their emissions, and what needs to happen at a national level to achieve net zero. To give an example, many companies have installed solar panels, but to aid the energy transition their focus should be on electrifying their business ready for when the grid is fully renewable. However, current incentives do not encourage this. A better policy framework is needed which provides the necessary incentives and accreditation to align corporate actions with the changes required to achieve net zero.

3. Taking a closer look at the impacts of climate change

While we must reach net zero, we must also prepare for the dangers of a warming world. However, to prepare we first need to know what the dangers are, and where and when they are likely to happen. The CCC aims to build a regional picture of climate change risk in the UK, so that areas most at risk of hazards such as flooding, drought and extreme weather can be identified.

There are at least two benefits to doing this. The first is psychological. Painting a much clearer picture of the cost of inaction on climate change could motivate those in power to take robust action and may encourage wider behavioural change across society.

The second benefit is in facilitating evidence-based policymaking. Understanding risk at a local level is necessary to generate effective adaptation policy, as any policy framework must lead to local interventions where the impacts will be felt. Once risk is quantified at a regional level, regional policy interventions can be evaluated, and judgements made on which policies will reduce that risk to an acceptable level. Whether decisions are made at a national or local level is an open question, but the regional nature of the risks suggests a devolved approach could prove useful. Regardless of who makes the decisions, it will never be possible to take every adaptation action. Difficult choices lie ahead regarding which policies and projects are pursued to minimise the human cost of climate change in communities across the UK.

Through the discussion, participants touched on many aspects of the climate crisis. From agriculture, frameworks for loss and damage, and even geoengineering — no stone is being left unturned in the search for the best path to net zero. What is clear is that any credible path must be comprehensive and requires a strategy for every sector of the economy. Such a vast challenge needs to be guided by a long-term vision backed by evidence-based policy. If climate change is a jigsaw puzzle, then the role of advisory bodies like the CCC is to carefully lay out all the pieces created by researchers such that the route to the solution is clear. It is then down to the government to put the pieces together.

Image by Ryoji Iwata - Unsplash