UK net-zero goals could be missed due to government inertia

    07 Jul 2023

    The UK’s climate change watchdog has warned the government will fail to hit its net-zero targets unless immediate action is taken.

    In its 15th annual report, the Climate Change Committee said it has lost confidence in the UK’s ability to meet its pledges due to inertia on pushing ahead with key initiatives, including installing heat pumps and planting more trees.

    The committee is an independent, non-departmental public body that advises the UK as well as devolved governments and parliaments on climate change.

    At the UN Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow in 2021, under its Nationally Determined Contribution, the UK pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

    So far, emissions have fallen 46 per cent, the committee said.

    We need to see a quadrupling of pace of progress in the power sector,” Chris Stark, the committee’s chief executive, said.

    “We are looking to policy programmes from the government that will achieve that. Our confidence for them to be met has declined. The plans are insufficient.

    “There are no secrets for net zero any longer – we know how to do it.

    “Right across the board, we have well-worked-through strategies for how to cut carbon emissions to zero in most areas and for those sectors that we can’t get to absolute zero. We have enough capacity in the natural world and through more engineered solutions to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

    “Those things take time. They need to put policies in place now that would steer us towards that future. That’s what we’re not seeing at the pace that’s required.”

    He said green initiatives in the US and the EU posed a “new competitive threat” that the UK needs to respond to.

    “We are worried about inertia. We need to scale up supply chains and delivery,” he said.

    “It looks like something the government is trying to duck.”

    Government urged to put climate change at top of agenda

    The report said glimmers of the net-zero transition can be seen in growing sales of new electric cars and the continued use of renewable capacity, but it warned that the scale-up of action overall is “worryingly slow”.

    “Time is now very short to achieve this change of pace,” it said.

    “The government continues to place their reliance on technological solutions that have not been deployed at scale, in preference to more straightforward encouragement of people to reduce high-carbon activities.”

    Committee chairman Lord Deben, former Conservative Party minister John Selwyn Gummer, said climate change needs to be at the top of the government’s agenda.

    “I am sad to say that this, my last progress report, is not a report that suggests satisfactory progress,” he said.

    “Of course we can change if we decide to do it now, not to wait until a next election but actually go out and lead the world as we did at the Glasgow summit. We need to reclaim that leadership.”

    He added that he hoped the “tough and clear words” of the report would bring the government back to fighting climate change.

    “We really cannot let these chances go – they will not come again,” he said.

    “The lesson of my 10 years at the Climate Change Committee is that early action benefits the people of this country and helps us to meet the challenges of the coming decades more cheaply and more easily.

    “Yet, even in these times of extraordinary fossil fuel prices, government has been too slow to embrace cleaner, cheaper alternatives and too keen to support new production of coal, oil and gas.”

    He added that there was a “worrying hesitancy” by ministers to lead the country to the next stage of net-zero commitments.

    “I urge the government to regroup on net zero and commit to bolder delivery,” he added. “This is a period when pace must be prioritised over perfection.”

    Last year, a High Court judge ruled that the government must provide greater transparency on its net-zero plans.

    Under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, approval has been given for a new coal mine in north-west England, while the government has signalled support for new North Sea oil and gas exploration.

    The committee said this has sent “confusing signals” on the UK’s climate priorities to the global community.

    The panel also said the government has “no clear policy” to deliver its aims of decarbonised steel production, and upgrading the electricity grid to include renewable infrastructure, particularly onshore wind, is caught up in planning restrictions.

    It said while sales of new electric cars continue to grow, electric van sales are lagging behind and remain significantly off track.

    Tree planting must double by 2025

    Despite renewable electricity capacity increasing last year, the report said it was not rising at the rate required to meet the government’s targets, particularly for solar.

    It raised concerns that the government proposal to scale up the market for heat pump installations to 600,000 by 2028 was lacking, as current rates are about one ninth of this.

    The UK currently ranks 21st in Europe for the number of heat pumps installed.

    The report said rates of tree-planting must double by 2025 to reach the government’s target of 30,000 hectares per year of woodland creation and warned that peatland restoration rates need to increase.

    “Our confidence in the government’s plans for meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets in the 2030s has decreased since last year,” the committee said.

    “With little substantial progress, timelines are slipping. Urgent action is now needed to strengthen existing policies, fill policy gaps and develop alternative plans to mitigate the risk posed to the UK’s international and domestic commitments.

    “With the 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution only seven years away, the next year will prove crucial for the UK government to show how it will achieve this and demonstrate that outcomes are being delivered in all areas.”

    The UK has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050.

    The Institute for Public Policy Research think tank said the government needs to act now.

    “This damning report makes clear that the UK is failing to make sufficient progress towards its legally binding climate targets at home and has abandoned its position of climate leadership abroad,” said Luke Murphy, head of the think tank’s Fair Transition Unit and associate director for energy and climate.

    Despite limited progress in some areas, across a whole range of sectors from transport to energy, homes to industry, and agriculture and land, there remains a lack of coherent policy and tangible delivery.

    “The government’s plans operate on the basis of a ‘wing and a prayer’, placing faith in technological solutions that have not been delivered at scale.”

    The impacts of these failures go well beyond the environmental, he continued.

    “Our energy bills are higher, we’re less energy secure, and we’re failing to reap the economic benefits of the transition to net zero,” he said.

    “In the global green race, the UK is still stuck in the changing room complaining to the referee about the boots the other runners are wearing.

    “By failing to act now, the government is multiplying the problem future leaders will face and leaving an even more damaged environment and economy for younger and future generations.”


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