COP26, net zero and the UK – coherent plans or merely ambitious aims?

This article discusses the significance of the forthcoming Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) and the UK Government’s commitments to climate change, including the target to achieve net zero by 2050.

 COP26 – the significance

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations (UN) Convention; meeting annually in efforts to combat climate change on a global level.Of particular significance was COP21, where the Paris Agreement (2015) was born. As a result of this agreement, over 190 parties agreed to work collectively to limit global warming in this century to below 2 degrees, aiming for 1.5 degrees. These countries committed to creating action plans detailing how they would reduce their carbon emissions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and to providing financial support worth 100 billion dollars per year to countries that are considered to be the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.This November 2021 will mark the 26th annual summit of the UN’s climate change conference (COP26); representing a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change. COP26 is perceived as the successor to COP21 and therefore the main opportunity to review any achievements since 2015, whilst setting firm plans to strengthen the commitments of the Paris Agreement and accelerate the movement towards achieving carbon emissions of net zero in 2050.The summit also signifies the deadline for parties to finalise their NDCs, but is significant for a variety of other reasons. For example, following the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an emphasis on countries to rebuild their economies through a ‘green recovery,’ and the delay to the conference due to the pandemic has also highlighted that the vital opportunities to take action in order to remain under 1.5 degrees of global warming are reducing each year.Further, as host of COP26 and one of the nations that is most responsible for climate change historically, there will be an intense focus on how the UK is responding itself. The conference will be held from 31 October 2021 to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow.

Ambitious goals with an absence of plans?

Despite the UK’s leading responsibility, the UK’s Climate Change Committee has warned that the UK Government has not yet supported their target of achieving net zero by 2050 with realistic plans. In their Report to Parliament on “Progress in reducing emissions” (dated 24 June 2021), the Climate Change Committee claimed that the government is failing to reinforce “important statements of ambition” in regard to the climate crisis with “realistic policies necessary to achieve them”.  Thus, many high emission industries may remain unprepared to decarbonise at the scale and pace that the government will require.Following the Climate Change Committee’s warning however, the Environmental Audit Committee announced that it will carefully monitor the government’s net zero strategy and what solutions, if any, can be suggested to meet the policy ambitions.In addition, the UK has recently reduced overseas aid spending which may undermine their commitment to financially support countries that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and ultimately reduce their credibility, particularly as COP26 hosts.The cuts convey to world leaders that failing to deliver for vulnerable countries is acceptable, therefore, many leaders may question their individual responsibility in providing financial support for climate change when the UK itself has retracted its own commitments. The UK should demonstrate leadership and strong support for countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change who are at risk of being alienated.Furthermore, the recently revised National Planning Policy Framework 2021 (NPPF) does not make reference to “net zero”, despite the framework strengthening requirements around the UN’s climate change goals.In its response to the consultation on the NPPF and the new National Model Design Code, The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government however has recently announced that it intends to carry out a “fuller review” of the NPPF. This followed concerns over the extent to which the changes promote the government’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050 and to ensure that the government contributes to climate change mitigation “as fully as possible.”The government’s response indicated that many of the consultation responses proposed changes such as to include explicit commitments to the net zero target and an emphasis on renewable energy in the revised NPPF.Although conducting a “fuller review” of the NPPF signifies a step in the right direction, it does not deflect from the fact that the government missed a key opportunity to provide further advice and support to local authorities on reducing carbon emissions through planning. It is crucial for the government to show an increased level of commitment and to lead the way with the climate emergency; with COP26 presenting the perfect opportunity to begin.As November rapidly approaches and we remain in “the decisive decade for tackling climate change,” the Climate Change Committee Report emphasises that “focus must switch to delivery” for the government. In turn, it is essential that the government engages with further reviews, reforms and creates more tangible action plans, including embracing the potential to use new greenhouse gas removal technologies, in order to reflect the reality of the climate emergency and to dismiss concerns about failing to achieve net zero by 2050.

If you have any questions in relation to this article, please do not hesitate to get in touch with Claudia Booth


The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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