The Climate Change Committee’s latest progress report does not make for happy reading for the government. Once again there is praise for “ambition”, but we are still – three years on from adopting the target, nine months on from publishing a strategy – a very long way from a convincing set of policies that show words will turn into the action.  

The pandemic absorbed attention in 2020 and 2021, and it has been followed by a deep energy and cost of living crisis. Yet the opportunity to tackle rising bills and emissions together was utterly missed. The longer net zero plans remain full of gaps, the more it appears that the government lacks not time or capacity but the political will and capital required to get the UK on track.

There has been real progress on power and electric cars

The two sectors where the UK does have credible plans for cutting emissions are electricity supply and transport. The former has long been a UK success story, since previous governments took steps to move away from coal, first to gas and then towards renewables. The Johnson administration is building on those successes by substantially extending plans for offshore wind deployment (even if it stumbled over doing the same for onshore).

The government can claim more credit for political bravery on cars. Early in his premiership, Johnson took a snap decision – surprising even officials in the transport department – to bring the phaseout date for petrol and diesel vehicles forward to 2030. DfT then backed this up with a mandate on manufacturers and further subsidies for consumers. While there is work to do on charging infrastructure, these policies led to a boom in sales that has put the UK broadly on track for decarbonising surface transport – the UK’s largest single source of emissions.

Momentum has stalled since COP26

But what is striking is that these are the only plans. In other sectors – homes and buildings, agriculture and land use, manufacturing, carbon capture – credible policies and delivery plans are still missing. The CCC doesn’t think the government is on track on buildings in any of the ten areas it looks at; critically, the Heat and Buildings Strategy failed to set out a clear offer on retrofit for most households, while the UK continues to build new homes that will need to be retrofitted.

Emissions from agriculture and land use need to fall by a quarter by 2030, yet Defra appears in little hurry to explain how this will happen. A recent food strategy failed to respond to the challenge set down by the Dimbleby review, while the a big gap remains on peatland restoration. These areas all involve more difficult trade-offs about who will bear costs and need to adjust. The only conclusion is that ministers don’t appear willing to make them.

It is not only the lack of sectoral plans and policies – the government is falling short on critical enablers like skills, too. It lacks a clear offer on the adult training needed to support businesses to equip workers for the transition: this could become the key blocker given the headwinds the UK economy and labour market faces. The CCC also highlights the weakness of central coordination and approaches for embedding net zero in policy making – points we have long highlighted.

All this means the momentum the government developed going into COP26 was lost. The worst misfire of all was British Energy Security Strategy – a rushed and confused document which completely failed to address the problem it identified. The most impactful options on security, affordability and emissions – reducing demand, accelerating home insulation, deploying more onshore wind – were ignored (although Johnson does appear finally to be waking up to the importance of insulating homes).

The PM needs to act quickly if he wants a net zero legacy

The prime minister’s room for manoeuvre is more constrained than it was when he entered office. In recent decisions, like rowing back on plans to extend onshore wind, he has proven unwilling to take on backbenchers whose support he needs to stay in office.

Yet net zero remains popular in his parliamentary party – membership of the support group far outweighs that of the scrutiny group – and among the public, including Conservative voters. Indeed while most of his prospective successors may appear cooler towards climate action, polling [1suggests maintaining such a position at an election would lose their party votes – as it recently did Liberals in Australia.

The challenge for Johnson is to reboot his government’s approach to net zero – and work with his cabinet to develop effective policies that command support, replicating his success on electric vehicles. That won’t be easy; but it is the challenge that faces anyone who wants to be remembered as a green prime minister. Two more years of drift would leave his successors – and the country – with a mountain to climb.

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  1. Taking The Temperature: Scrapping The Net Zero Target Would Cost Tories 1.3m Votes – Onward (ukonward.com)

Original source – The Institute for Government

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