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Four reflections on the UK's Nationally Determined Contribution

Written by Laetitia Pettinotti, Jodie Keane

 Youth strike for climate in Birmingham, 2019. Photo: Nick Wood, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Climate Ambition Summit 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement and should spur greater ambition ahead of next year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Its host, the United Kingdom, announced it would reveal its new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in the run up to the Summit.

While details of the UK’s NDC have not yet been released, the UK Committee on Climate Change has assessed the country’s commitment to at least 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to levels in the 1990s. It also follows the 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution envisioned by the UK Prime Minister, which was issued in November.

As we await the full details of the UK’s NDC and in view of COP26, we identify areas where the UK could better support the intersection of climate, trade and development for low-income countries (LICs).

Imported emissions and an ambitious NDC

The UK is world leading in its commitment to reduce emissions compared to other NDCs submitted so far. But the emissions reduction target concerns territorial emissions – as per the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reporting requirement. This does not cover all emissions through UK consumption. The UK’s territorial emissions declined between 1990–2016, but consumption emissions increased threefold over the same period. Consumption emissions – principally imported from emerging economies and LICs – now constitute 43% of the UK’s total emissions. This means that the UK is responsible for extra territorial emissions in Annex II countries. An ambitious NDC would acknowledge this and pledge to use low carbon solutions to reduce the emission intensity of production in LICs, consumption dynamics at home and waste disposal.

Unanswered questions in the UK’s 10-point plan

There are a number of questions regarding how the ambitious vision set out in the UK’s 10-point plan will support economic development for LICs, trade and climate ambitions. For example, while point eight focuses on carbon capture and storage, the use of carbon offsets and role of carbon markets more broadly should be clarified. The linkages between – as well as operationalisation of – points eight (carbon capture and storage), nine (nature based solutions) and 10 (green finance) require greater elaboration. How will nature based solutions be operationalised at scale? How will the UK utilise carbon offsets? Both of these questions are related to green finance, but the detail is not yet there to answer them.

We need more information on how the UK will develop its carbon trading regime outside of the EU, and what the role of offsets will look like. More clarity is also needed on how the UK’s trade and development instruments will take better account of the environment, beyond reliance on companies’ due diligence in certain sectors.

Adapting to climate impacts

Given the thermal inertia of the ocean and other slow earth system’s feedback processes (PDF), even if net zero was achieved globally in the next decade, a further rise in global average temperature (past the global 1oC rise already observed) would still occur. This will have many related impacts, including a disruption on value chains and infrastructure.

Adaptation to climate impacts remains a priority of the UK’s NDC both at home and abroad. The UK has committed to doubling its international climate finance spending to £11.6 billion (PDF) from 2021 to 2026. Helping LICs to increase their adaptive capacity to continue production and trading should be prioritised. Such actions would also support both importers to the UK and consumers, and lead to more resilient value chains. This support could include providing sustainable finance streams to supply chain initiatives in LICs that deliver on climate adaptation goals such as more drought-resistant crop varieties and market diversification. It could also involve providing climate-informed evidence for infrastructure investment, such as integrating climate risks in planning for energy and transport infrastructure.

Finding alternative forms of energy

Finally, the promotion of alternative forms of energy feature prominently within the UK’s 10-point plan. But how they are promoted in the UK’s NDC, and trade and investment policies both home and abroad, deserves detailed attention. As the Committee on Climate Change has previously made clear, there is residual equivalent to around 130 million tonnes of CO2 that the UK must account for if it is to achieve its ambition. This is around four times the total emissions of Mozambique between 1990-2016.

As we move towards the close of 2020, as COP26 chair, the UK must ensure that its climate ambition does not undermine a just transition. Instead it must support the poorest countries in the world to achieve their development, trade and climate goals. There is a need to follow up UK’s 10-point plan with a further strategy to secure climate compatible trade and development outcomes at COP26.