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The government needs to get itself in shape for net zero

Getting the governance right to put the UK on track for net zero will be crucial

The Committee on Climate Change’s latest report underlines how much work is needed to secure a green recovery that gets the UK on track for net zero. Getting the governance right will be crucial, too, argues Tom Sasse

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a dramatic fall in global greenhouse gas emissions, which may be down as much as 10% this year. But the fall is temporary, and the planet keeps on warming. Tackling the climate crisis – as well as the public health and economic crisis – remains as urgent as ever.

The latest annual report on the UK government’s progress by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s independent expert advisors, makes the scale and urgency of the policy task clear. And with the UK preparing to host COP26, a key UN climate summit, in 2021, the next 12 months are key. But, as an Institute for Government report out soon will argue, this is about more than putting the right policies in place. If it is to achieve its target, the government also needs to make big changes to the way it works.

The government is still not on track for net zero

A year on from adopting its 2050 net zero target, the UK is still off track. The CCC is notably upbeat about progress in some areas – particularly the Department for Transport, where the electric-vehicle-driving Grant Shapps has taken on the agenda with more speed than his predecessor Chris Grayling. A transport strategy published quietly in March – which raised the prospect of needing to reduce transport demand – delighted many hardened campaigners.  

But if that strategy represented a gear shift, progress is slow or has stalled elsewhere in government. The UK remains off track on 17 of 21 key areas the committee set out a year ago; on seven it is going backwards. Three of those are in housing, which is now consistently singled out by experts as the area flashing red on the dashboard. The government faces a huge task – most of the UK’s 28 million homes are draughty, inefficient and have gas boilers that will need replacing – but policy has flip-flopped and there is currently no overarching government plan. On industry, too, the government has shown too little ambition in designing tax and regulation that shift companies towards low-carbon.

Net zero cannot be left until after the pandemic dies down

The committee’s key message is that embedding net zero into the economic recovery from coronavirus is a win-win. The report goes to some lengths to highlight “growing evidence” that green stimulus policies could be the most effective in delivering jobs and growth in parts of the country most economically affected by coronavirus.

Other countries are taking this approach. The committee highlights Germany’s €130bn bailout package – heavily targeted at low-carbon sectors – and Canada’s attachment of “green strings” to bailouts for businesses. Boris Johnson has said he is committed to securing a “green recovery”, but his government has yet to bring forward proposals to achieve that aim. All eyes will be on the chancellor’s statement, which will set out his financial support package, next month.

Housing is an obvious area for policies that can focus on both the climate and coronavirus. Frontloading the already necessary national retrofit programme could also help absorb the high levels of unemployment expected as the furlough scheme ends and the recession bites.

Government needs to get itself ready to deliver net zero

However, as an IfG report out soon will argue, if the government is serious about net zero and a green recovery, it will also need to also look at its own ways of working. That means working out how it will agree a cross-government net zero plan that gets the UK on track to meet its target, improve co-ordination of activities across government, and build the capability needed to make and deliver policy well. Last October, the prime minister announced he would chair a new Cabinet Committee on Climate Change, attended by senior ministers, to drive government policy and hold departments to account. So far, it has met only once. Co-ordination of climate change, for which responsibility lies in the business department, remains underpowered.  

In many areas, successive governments have failed to develop long-term plans that provide enough certainty for the market to act. Departments will need to give businesses and investors more confidence about the direction of policy and regulation to enable the kind of investment needed for the transition to low-carbon. The civil service will also to equip itself with the scientific, technological and commercial expertise needed to make difficult choices between uncertain technologies and oversee very large and complex infrastructure programmes, like retrofit and the replacement of gas boilers. Currently, it lacks capabilities in key areas, while turnover  remains high.

Net zero is a huge task for the government. As well as new policy ideas, it will also require new thinking about how government works.

Net zero
Climate change
Johnson government
Institute for Government

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