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The government's net zero strategy: a good start but big gaps remain

The government will have to add detail, and confront hard choices, if their green transition targets within it are to be realistic

The government has produced a template for a green transition. But it will have to add detail, and confront hard choices, if the targets within it are to be realistic, says Tom Sasse

Producing a plan for a 30-year transformation of every sector of the economy was always going to be a difficult task. It is reasonable for the government to point out that while many other major economies have adopted net zero targets, few have yet produced a detailed roadmap for getting there. That is what makes the 368-page report published on Tuesday such an interesting – and important – document, with COP26 a little over a week away.

The UK government’s strategy does not have all the answers – far from it. There are major holes and optimistic assumptions; many questions about how all of it can be delivered go unanswered. It is nevertheless a landmark document that will help shape coming debates about how net zero can be realised. 

The strategy is impressive in breaking new ground

The strategy takes the 2050 target as its starting point and works backwards, grappling with choices and trade-offs and putting numbers on possible sectoral trajectories. This alone means it goes much further than any previous strategy. It is, for instance, a big advance on the 2017 Clean Growth Strategy, which failed to provide a template against which to assess progress. 

The government sets out three possible routes to net zero – based on more electrification, use of hydrogen or innovation, respectively – and then charts an “indicative delivery pathway”. The pathways themselves are revealing: all rely on optimistic assumptions about rapid technology deployment, particularly on carbon capture (technologies that remove emissions from the atmosphere), and minimise the role of behaviour change. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) the government’s independent advisers, sees the latter as having a key role, but a government spokesman dismissed it as “dictating to people” with the strategy pledging people would be able to fly “without guilt”.

The government has now started to piece together a set of nearer-term targets and regulatory instruments to guide the transition: in particular, the ambition to fully decarbonise the power system by 2035, end new gas boiler sales from 2035 and to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030. Much more is needed to underpin these commitments. But sticking to them would go a long way in helping to address the lack of consistent market signals that we argued has hampered progress over the last decade.

But there are big gaps and questions about how net zero will be delivered

There are some glaring omissions in the strategy. It is notably weak on agriculture and land use, with little more than a vague aim to get more farmers “engaged in low carbon practices”. And beyond the  strategy’s headline announcements, many decisions were deferred with the government appearing to remain cautious of a public backlash. On energy efficiency, stronger regulation was ducked, while funding promised in the 2019 manifesto has still not materialised. Despite headlines around new nuclear, there was little detail to suggest urgency.

Overall, it is unclear whether the policies in the strategy add up to the pathway the government sets out, even on their quite heroic assumptions. The business department says they do but has not published their calculations. The CCC will no doubt draw its own judgement.

But the biggest questions departments will need to address are on delivery. The announcement of a Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, which will force manufacturers to sell an increasing proportion of electric vehicles (EVs) each year, will galvanise progress towards the 2030 phase-out target. But there is a huge task to ready the electricity grid and charging networks for an EV fleet. On heat and buildings, the path between spurring innovation and rapidly scaling up installations remains similarly unclear. 

The big political dividing line has been over investment. The main parties agree a huge amount is needed; some £50bn per year by the end of the decade according to the CCC. But the government thinks this can and should be largely left to the market: funding in the strategy adds up to less than £7bn per year over the next four years, with the Treasury arguing against a “green carve out” from its fiscal rules to support the transition.

This compares to Labour’s call to spend as much as £28bn per year to the end of the decade, paid for through borrowing. That puts the onus on the government to show it can stimulate the level of investment needed to achieve the pace of change required. That will only happen if businesses are convinced government will stick to its plans and timelines – and they have been burned before.

Weak co-ordination could undermine efforts to stay on track

Government itself will need to change if the plan is to be delivered. We argued last year that the machinery within government was unfit for the scale of the challenge, and the delays and background briefings that preceded the strategy suggest that co-ordination is still weak. The government acknowledges this, devoting a whole chapter to “embedding net zero in government” and the need to take a “systems approach”.

But it not clear that it has proposals equal to the scale of the challenge. The government emphasises the role of its two climate cabinet committees and says net zero will be one of four priorities given to the new No.10 delivery unit, but policy co-ordination remains the responsibility of a very preoccupied business department, which must also work with a seemingly reticent Treasury. The current set-up is very reliant on consistent personal engagement from the prime minister to force his colleagues to stay on track and make future trade-offs. The government may yet need a strong central net zero unit under a powerful Cabinet Office minister.

The government now has a plan – and a commitment to give an annual update on progress. But ministers need to publish the detailed projections that underlie it to allow the CCC and parliament to scrutinise performance. That transparency would give confidence that this is a strategy that will survive, and be strengthened, once the excitement and focus of the COP is long gone.

Economy Energy
Johnson government
Institute for Government

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