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UK Net Zero 2050 strategy amounts to ‘aspiration rather than real intention’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 2, 2022
MPs on the influential Public Accounts Committee have lambasted the government’s Net Zero 2050 strategy, saying that there is no clear plan for how it will be funded.

An image of half the world on fire due to climate change
(Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay )

Earlier this week the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly laid out the stark reality rising CO2 emissions are having on the world, stating that there is a very small window of opportunity to avert the worst possible impacts. 

The report follows last year's COP26 event in Glasgow, which saw businesses, government officials and researchers come together to set out how the world can work together to reduce the effects of climate change. The British Government lauded the event as a huge success, after delegates finally agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact. 

Shortly before COP26, the British Government itself laid out its strategy to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The strategy took two years to publish and outlines measures to transition to a green and sustainable future, reducing Britain's reliance on imported fossil fuels. 

However, this week MPs on the influential Public Accounts Committee have said that the government's Net Zero 2050 policy amounts to not much more than ‘aspiration' rather than ‘real intention', given that the government has no clear plan for how it will be published. 

Outlining its key concerns, Chair of the Committee Dame Meg Hillier MP, said: 

Government is relying heavily on rapidly changing consumer behaviours and technological innovations to drive down the costs of green options, but it is not clear how it will support and encourage consumers to purchase greener products or incentivise businesses and drive change.

Every Government department has a responsibility for delivering policies towards the target of net zero but two years after enshrining the ‘Net Zero' by 2050 target in law, the government has unveiled a plan without answers to the key questions of how it will fund the transition to net zero - including how it replace significant income from taxes such as fuel duty.

The government's net zero strategy requires government, local government, regulators, businesses, and consumers working all together to deliver its targets. A top-down strategy from government won't deliver on its own. There is a risk that a series of disconnected initiatives announced by central government will not bring about the changes that are now set out in law.

Key concerns

The Committee's primary complaint on the government's Net Zero 2050 strategy is that it essentially has no clear plan for how it will be funded. Its report notes that the government's ability to track its performance against the 2050 target is hampered by vague performance measures, a lack of overall budget or plans to collate and report what it is spending. 

The Treasury was reluctant to be drawn on the future costs of achieving net zero, cautioning that current estimates are ‘heroic assumptions' with errors that will potentially compound over very long periods. However, the Committee notes that without funding, the strategy "merely amounts to an aspiration not a real intention" by the government. 

The report argues that the government should set out in detail how it will report progress in implementing its net zero policies, including: 

  • specific metrics, including the effects of tax measures such as vehicle and fuel related duties.

  • how it will use these metrics to track progress against long-term targets on an annual basis, for example by setting interim or annual ambitions; and

  • what it will do if progress demonstrates underperformance

The Committee also notes that the government's strategy relies heavily on private investment and innovation to drive down costs, but adds that the government has a "poor track record of providing investor confidence". It wants the government to monitor how quickly technology costs are falling and the levels of private investment it is attracting, setting clear triggers for interventions as new policies and regulations for when things go off course. 

Unsurprisingly, the Committee also points to a lack of urgency in clarifying how it will work with local government to achieve net zero. Again, this is a common mistake made by central government, given the role that local authorities play in running the country. 

The Committee says that local authorities have significant scope to influence emissions in their local area, but government has not sufficiently worked with them on their role in achieving net zero. 

Skills are also of significant concern, where both the private sector and the civil service do not currently have the skills to deliver key aspects of the strategy. For example, the government believes it will achieve its target to install 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028, but the recent failure of the Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme was in part driven by the lack of skilled workers.

The Committee's report also suggests that the government's failings are reducing its influence abroad. It states:

Climate change is a global challenge which requires a global solution. Government aims to lead by example domestically to help drive action and ambition internationally. 

However, delays in publishing targets for reducing public sector emissions risk undermining its credibility nationally and internationally. 

There is also a risk that policies driving emissions reductions domestically increase emissions elsewhere, and the Department acknowledges that so-called ‘consumption emissions' are harder to measure as it requires information on emissions generated by the manufacture and transport of imported goods. 

Although HM Treasury is considering the challenges of carbon ‘leakage' for UK competitiveness, that is displacing emissions from one country to another, the Department recognises that international supply chain emissions, and product standards are areas where it needs to do more work. 

There are obvious limitations without solutions in obtaining accurate, quality data from many foreign jurisdictions. It is not easy to see how these limitations can be overcome.

My take

This report doesn't come as a great surprise, given that this current administration has a track record of big rhetoric, but little funding, vision or support to back up its vision. The IPPC report this week makes for dire reading and governments around the world need to rapidly implement structural changes, underpinned by significant funding, if they want to see actual change. There's a small window of opportunity and this has real consequences for us all. 

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