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The UK’s current pathway to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will result in emissions twice or even three times greater than allowed under the 2015 Paris Agreement, a leading climate scientist has warned.

Kevin Anderson, who holds academic positions at the University of Manchester, and in Sweden and Norway, argues in a recently-published paper that the UK and other developed countries’ reliance on “highly speculative” negative emissions technologies (NETs) has neglected the Paris agreement’s emphasis on equity in countries’ carbon budgets.

The report suggests that so-called climate-progressive countries such as the UK and Sweden have projected carbon mitigation pathways which are double what they should be when genuine regard for equity is taken into account.

When taking into account the Paris commitment to equity, acknowledging the different responsibilities and capabilities of developed and less developed countries, the UK should be aiming to deliver a ‘fully decarbonised energy system’ by 2035-40, Anderson argues.

In the paper, Anderson criticises the current method used to measure the UK’s carbon emissions, which does not include either international aviation or shipping emissions. This is despite the fact that UK contributions to these sources of emissions are substantial, with Heathrow consistently featuring in the top ten list of the world’s busiest airports.

Anderson’s findings are based on the inclusion of both UK emissions from aviation and shipping and the assumption that the third runway at Heathrow will be built. “Under these assumptions,” he writes, “from 2020 to 2100, UK emissions total 9,000 MtCO2, more than double that of the DD2 pathway (three times the sum of the DD1 pathway).” These pathways are ones which developed countries such as the UK would need to follow in order to achieve the commitments made under the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Despite the UK Government last year adopting a policy of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Anderson argues that the basis of this target is based on doubtful assumptions. He casts “significant doubt on the extent to which carbon price mechanisms and green growth strategies reliant on decoupling of emissions from economic growth can deliver on the Paris Agreement.”

“Marginal adjustments to a market-oriented economy” can no longer be seen as enough if we are to avert the catastrophic consequences which scientists agree will flow from a 2-degrees warming of global average temperatures from pre-19th century base lines.

A lack of attention to equity, which requires developed countries taking responsibility for emissions such as international aviation and shipping, transfers “a significant proportion of the mitigation burden on to future generations’ Anderson concludes, arguing that a failure ‘to tale appropriate actions will increasingly lock-in devastating climate impacts, imposed initially on poor and climate vulnerable societies, but ultimately across all of the international community and natural ecosystems.”

Anderson has been a vocal critic of the academic and scientific community, and in a post on Twitter earlier this month suggested that, “the last decade has seen a cosy consensus emerge between many senior academics, the CCC [UK Committee on Climate Change], BBC, Guardian, Gov Scientists, NGO heads, concerned CEOs, etc, sharing a judgement that we can’t question the status quo so must adjust our mitigation discussions accordingly.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Anderson said that, “On mitigation, the academic community and the CCC have collectively failed the political realm and civil society by tailoring our conclusions to fit with what we judge to be politically palatable – all at the expense of scientific integrity.”

The chief executive of the CCC, Chris Stark, responded to the Guardian, adding that, “It continues to be the CCC’s view that this is the right target for the UK, but we welcome new evidence and we will review new studies as we develop our advice on the sixth carbon budget for the end of this year.”

Meanwhile, Oxford University has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 50% from their peak by 2030, replacing its former pledge to reduce emissions by 33% by 2021.

Anderson’s full report can be found here:

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.