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Johnson's 10-point net zero statement is encouraging – but not a credible plan

The strong signals of intent in the prime minister’s net zero plan will only be valuable if there is a plan to deliver them

The strong signals of intent in the prime minister’s net zero plan will only be valuable if there is a plan to deliver them, argues Tom Sasse

Self-isolation has not stopped Boris Johnson from marking the beginning of his post-Cummings premiership with a major statement of intent. His 10-point net zero plan is designed to show that the prime minister is looking beyond the current crisis to COP26, the UN climate change conference which the UK will host next year – and which offers Johnson a platform to win plaudits at home and, perhaps, a legacy on the world stage.  

But while the 10 pledges start to sketch out his vision of the UK’s path to net zero, they do not amount to a credible plan to get there. Today’s announcements need to be backed up with a stronger focus on coordination and delivery.  

Johnson is beginning to grip net zero and link it to his wider agenda 

In our net zero report, published in September, we reported a feeling in government that the prime minister, who had yet to deliver a serious speech on the subject, had yet to grip net zero. That has since changed, first with a party conference speech that focused on clean energy and now with a raft of policy measures outlining the UK’s pathway (with a focus on offshore wind, nuclear and hydrogen). 

Johnson linked this “green industrial transformation” to his (so far rather vague) “levelling up” agenda. That is an important signal both inside and outside government: it should help ministers to prioritise the target and the government to persuade voters of the benefits, particularly in the north-east and north-west where it is promising new jobs, of net zero.

The decision to phase out petrol and diesel cars from 2030 shows a willingness to make difficult decisions, which the government has so far often preferred to duck. As Guy Newey, a former special adviser in the business department, said, this is a target which “carries real political risk” but demonstrates how strong regulation can be used to powerful effect to encourage investors and innovators to move.  

There are still policy gaps – and the 10 pledges are not enough to get the UK on track  

However, the policies and targets announced today do not add up to a credible plan that gets the UK on track for net zero. By some estimates, they leave the UK still off track for its fourth and fifth carbon budgets – let alone a net zero trajectory. The government has promised a more detailed and comprehensive plan next year ahead of COP26.  

Some big policy gaps remain – notably housing. The government has only brought forward around £4bn of the £9bn pledged for energy efficiency in its manifesto and it lacks a plan to incentivise homeowners to replace gas boilers (which currently heat 85% of the UK’s homes). More details are expected in white papers due in December.  

The overall level of investment – “£12 billion and potentially three times as much from the private sector” – is less than the Climate Change Committee say is needed, but we can expect more funding in the spending review and infrastructure strategy, as well as white papers on transport and energy, while the Treasury should have more to say on how costs will be distributed. The key is for the government to make a positive case for the returns of these investments across the country – and continue to build momentum. 

It must also be consistent and stick with the long-term targets and signals it has given to the private sector. Successive governments repeatedly flip-flopping on policy commitments as circumstances change has been a major barrier to progress, and left businesses and investors wary and frustrated.  

The government must fix big gaps in how net zero will be delivered

However, the biggest gap of all is any sense of how the government's plans will be delivered. Our report argued that the business department lacks the clout to coordinate net zero and that the government should create a net zero unit in the Cabinet Office to knit plans for each sector together and hold departments to account. Without this, the flurry of white papers risk lacking alignment, with next year’s plan looking like a cut and paste job. That won’t work for an economy-wide transformation that Johnson himself has acknowledged requires a joined up ‘systems approach’.  

Intriguingly, the prime minister said he would establish a “Task Force Net Zero” committed to reaching the 2050 target, but he offered no further details about where this would sit or how it would function. The new task force should be given the resources and heft to coordinate net zero across government.  

The government also needs to focus on delivery, with the failure to do so underming the plans of previous governments – and more recently with the chancellor’s Green Homes Grant (which was extended today, in a welcome move).  

The prime minister needs to ensure he has organisations in place to deliver the infrastructure transformation he envisions and make policies work on the ground. A delivery body for energy efficiency, modelled on the Olympics Delivery Authority which oversaw construction for the London Games, would be a good start. Departments will also need to think about engaging citizens in their plans for achieving these big changes.  

COP26 is less than a year away. As more countries around the world set out ambitious net zero targets, the focus will turn to how to deliver them. The UK, as host, will have the platform to lead – but the prime minister still has much work to do if he is going to grasp that opportunity. 

Net zero
Climate change
Johnson government
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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