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Boris Johnson needs more than wind to deliver net zero

The prime minister needs to do a lot more to hit the government’s net zero target 

Boris Johnson’s conference speech confirmed his commitment to expand offshore wind. This is welcome, but Jill Rutter argues that the prime minister needs to do a lot more to hit the government’s net zero target 

Offshore wind is a UK success story. As the prime minister pointed out in his speech to the virtual Conservative Party Conference, wind was once dismissed – including by himself – but now plays an increasing role in UK energy generation. And the once-sceptical Johnson made it a centrepiece of his speech, delivered in front of a slogan of ‘build back better’, and promised to make the UK a world leader.

This government is addicted to rhetorical ‘world beating’, but Johnson’s target of ensuring that offshore wind produces enough energy to power our homes may be one of the more plausible commitments, though one which will require a lot more investment than he claimed. One of the biggest successes has been onshoring a lot of the production and support as the wind industry expanded – government can do more of that too.

The prime minister’s announcement today was noteworthy. He now needs to build on it.

Wind alone is not enough to decarbonise housing

But changing the way electricity is provided to homes is not the biggest challenge the UK faces in getting housing to net zero. As our event at the same conference made clear, the bigger challenge is increasing the energy efficiency of homes, and weaning them off gas and other fossil fuels. It is failure to make any progress on that which has stalled any significant reduction in emissions from the housing sector over the last decade. Our panellists called for tougher regulations and cash to support those who could not afford to make the change – as well as, above all, a roadmap not just to decarbonise electricity supply, but to decarbonise the entire housing stock. The government has made a tentative start with its Green Homes Grant, but it needs to do much more to hit its net zero target.

The need for a plan goes beyond homes and other buildings. The government needs a plan for transport, a plan for agriculture, and a plan for industrial emissions. And it needs to put in place the machinery to ensure that its plan is based on a realistic assessment of the best, most cost-effective technological options – and then turned into action on the ground. That is what happened in the case of offshore wind, but decarbonising the power sector is, as we argued in our net zero report, relatively easy as it involves a few big players and no discernible change for the public. Other moves require millions of different decisions by households, individuals and businesses.

The prime minister needs to stay with the course he is setting to reach his destination

The prime minister chose sailing metaphors in his speech today, and he has a clear destination in sight. In 13 months’ time the UK will be hosting COP26, the big international conference on climate change. By then Johnson needs not only to convince countries to commit to ambitious targets – but to convince them that change is realistic. The recent announcement by China’s President Xi will help; a Biden/Harris win in the US presidential election would suggest the US might be a help rather than the hindrance it is now. But Johnson cannot depend on others: he needs to convert his high-blown rhetoric about the UK into a practical plan of action.

There is another wave he can ride. The recently concluded citizens' assembly on climate change, convened by six parliamentary select committees, suggested that the public was willing to get on board with the changes needed. To maintain that level of public enthusiasm will require the government to make sure that changes are seen to be fair. That means being clear to people about the benefits – and the costs.

The prime minister gets two cheers for becoming the first leader to make climate change the centrepiece of their conference performance. But Johnson will only win that third cheer if he is prepared to put his weight (however diminishing) behind a push towards developing a credible plan that provides the people who need to act – businesses and citizens – with the clarity and certainty they need to do so.

Net zero
Johnson government
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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