How the UK benefits from the Paris Agreement on climate change

Posted on 17 Dec 2015 in

The UK should have a safer future as a result of the Paris Agreement that was adopted by more than 190 countries at the United Nations climate change summit on 12 November 2015.

The Agreement commits the world to limit the rise in global average temperature to well below 2 centigrade degrees above its pre-industrial level.

Ahead of the summit, more than 180 countries, responsible for over 95 per cent of the world’s annual output of greenhouse gases, made pledges to limit or reduce their emissions over the next 10 to 15 years.

Collectively these represent a significant cut from ‘business as usual’ emissions.

However, they are not consistent with a pathway that would offer a reasonable chance of keeping the rise in global average surface temperature to less than 2 centigrade degrees.

Exceeding this limit would be very risky, with potentially catastrophic impacts from rising sea levels, the intensification of extreme weather, and major inundation and desertification in some parts of the world, forcing the movement of perhaps hundreds of millions of people.

That is why the Government’s recently-published Strategic Defence and Security Review highlighted the potential for climate change impacts to cause political and social instability around the world, including mass migration.

So the Paris Agreement commits governments to increase the ambition of their emissions cuts, and provide progress reports every five years.

It also set a long-term goal to achieve net zero annual emissions of man-made greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.

All this will help the UK, where the Met Office’s records show that our eight warmest years, and five of our six wettest years, have all occurred from 2000 onwards.

The Met Office warns that the UK is already facing increased risks of heatwaves, heavy rainfall, leading to more river and surface water flooding, and coastal flooding from global sea level rise.

All this is very likely due to the elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with carbon dioxide at its highest level for millions of years.

As there is a lag in the response of the climate to the rise in greenhouse gases, the UK and the rest of the world will have to cope with increasing impacts for the next few decades at least.

But the Paris Agreement offers our best chance of preventing still worse consequences.

The UK Government delegation, led by Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, played a key role in Paris for a number of reasons.

First, because it negotiated as part of the European Union, it was able to engage seriously with the other largest emitters, such as China, the United States and India.

Second, the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of UK GDP on overseas aid gives it the authority and ability to support economic development in poor countries that is sustainable, clean and climate-resilient.

Third, the UK is clearly showing that it can simultaneously grow its economy and take action against climate change – since 1990, our annual emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen 36 per cent while our GDP has increased by 60 per cent.

And fourth, we have the 2008 Climate Change Act, which is regarded around the world as a model of how policy-makers can create the right legislative framework to achieve the necessary cuts in emissions.

The Act commits the UK to reducing its annual emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 compared with 1990 as part of the global effort to limit global warming to no more than 2 centigrade degrees.

It requires the setting of a series of five-year ‘carbon budgets’, agreed by Parliament in advance, which provide a clear indication of policy direction.

The recent announcement by Ms Rudd that the UK will end the emissions from coal-fired power stations by 2025, sent a powerful message to the world from the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution: modern economies do not need to be powered by the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Coal produces twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated, compared with natural gas, and contributes to the air pollution that kills 29,000 people every year in the UK.

More than 80 per cent of the UK’s demand for coal is met by imports from countries such as Russia, and it receives a huge effective subsidy of about £19 billion in the UK every year, according to the International Monetary Fund, because its price does not reflect the cost of damage it causes to lives and livelihoods through local air pollution and climate change.

So the Prime Minister had real authority when he joined other world leaders in Paris at the start of the summit to signal the importance worldwide of the transition to low-carbon economic growth for future prosperity, security and poverty reduction.

The UK can and should continue to lead by example on climate change, demonstrating that the Paris Agreement means we and every other country can grow strongly and sustainably, whilst successfully managing the severe risks that climate change poses to ourselves, our children and future generations. This is the growth story of the future.


Nicholas Stern is Chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, President of the British Academy, and a cross-bench peer.