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Six things we learned at our net zero conference 

TomTom Sasse reflects on a day of discussions about how countries can reach net zero

From engaging the public and getting delivery right to confronting the costs, Tom Sasse reflects on a day of discussions about how countries can reach net zero

On 11 February, the Institute for Government held an international conference on the path to net zero as countries prepare for COP26. Speakers included business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and former climate change secretary Amber Rudd; advisers to ministers and presidents in the UK, France, Germany and beyond; and renowned energy and climate experts. The conference covered the UK’s approach to hosting the conference, but here are six things we learned about delivering net zero.

1. Net zero cannot be just about climate change

The phrase “net zero” is technocratic – abstract, even – and means little to most people; in fact, two thirds don’t know what it means. But getting everyone up to speed with the jargon is less important than framing the benefits of any transition to people’s everyday day lives: well-connected communities, warm and well-ventilated homes, clean air.

Our first panel on public engagement made clear that net zero will fail if climate change is the only driver. Policy makers need to work with citizens and consumers to make policies attractive and tailored to local concerns, reducing emissions while hitting other immediate or longer-term priorities.

2. Public engagement needs to be incorporated into climate politics

It is six months since the conclusion of Climate Assembly UK – the biggest attempt so far to find out what the British public thinks about the choices ahead. Darren Jones, chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, described its report as his committee’s “bible”; his committee members refer to it often as they grill ministers to understand what members of the public value. Diarmuid Torney said the Irish Dail had drawn extensively on the findings of the Irish climate assembly, which he advised.

This approach – of politicians incorporating and debating what assemblies say alongside other inputs – feels a better way of drawing the public into decision making than promising to implement their recommendations directly. A quick look over the channel reveals how the latter can quickly go wrong. President Macron said he would adopt the ideas of the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat, the French equivalent, “without filter”, but their suggestions proved unpalatable to his colleagues in government and parliament (and perhaps many of his voters). He has now backtracked, causing some members of the assembly to splinter into a pressure group.

It remains to be seen how the UK government will make use of Climate Assembly UK’s findings – and as panellists said, these exercises need to become routine parts of policy making, not one-offs. But politicians pledging to involve the public in designing policy will need to find ways to balance deliberative and representative democracy if decisions are to be seen as legitimate.

3. Net zero should learn from efforts to communicate Covid science

Climate change has become a much more mainstream concern in recent years – or as Jones put it, “no longer the preserve of vegan lefties from Bristol like me” – and that shift appears to have survived the initial economic hit from covid. But there are still many areas where the causes of emissions – and solutions needed to tackle them – are poorly understood.

On our third panel, Tim Lord, who until recently led decarbonisation policy in the business department, noted that people associate flying or driving a car with climate change, but not heating their home. Jones argued a lesson from Covid was that people want to understand the rationale behind measures – and suggested a series of Covid-style chart-heavy press conferences, with emissions replacing infections, would be a good start.

4. Kwasi Kwarteng will need help filling holes in the PM’s plan

We already knew that there are some big holes in the PM’s 10-point plan. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, readily admitted it “was never intended to be a cast-iron, watertight path to net zero” and “more policies and more legislation” would be needed in the coming months, picking out heat and buildings, agriculture and carbon leakage as priorities.

Kwarteng was keen to tie the government’s progress on net zero to his own journey: from taking the legislation through as a junior minister to his recent promotion, which gives him responsibility across government. The big question is does he have the clout to fill in the gaps?

We were sceptical back in September, arguing that the business department lacked the power to co-ordinate net zero. And it is notable that, even for just the three policies Kwarteng mentioned, many of the levers lie beyond his control. Much will depend on whether Johnson backs Kwarteng to push for changes in other departments, like the housing department and the Treasury (see below).

5. Heat is the big delivery test

The government is intent on driving internal combustion engine vehicles off the road. But while it has the outline of a serious plan for transport, Kwarteng acknowledged the absence of one for homes and buildings – and several speakers argued the really big delivery test within this would be decarbonising heat.

Michael Liebreich, a clean energy expert, said the government lacks any sense of clarity, whether over the technical solutions it is proposing for different buildings, or how much they will cost and the investment they require. Lord said the consumer proposition remains weak, with changes still sounding to most people like cost and disruption.

These criticisms are writ large in the latest failure over the Green Homes Grant – yet another energy subsidy scheme set to be withdrawn after suffering low uptake. The government has blamed Covid, but its real problem was launching what needed to be a long-term scheme as a short-term boost to the economy, without taking account of consumer concerns or giving the supply chain time to develop. All eyes will be on the heat and buildings strategy, due in the coming weeks.

6. The politics are about to get much harder  

The costs of the UK’s emissions reductions to date have largely been added to people’s electricity bills. This is regressive but as Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said, “the politics have worked in that no one has noticed”. That is not going to cut it for the changes coming – notably the huge upfront investment required in homes and transport. These will need to be financed even as Covid has made us poorer and more indebted. While investments will boost the short-term recovery and deliver wider benefits, like cleaner air, a much sharper focus on distributional impacts will be needed if the political consensus is to hold.

The fourth panel on costs agreed that the government should be more radical, including on carbon taxation. But Dieter Helm, an economist and adviser to many governments, dismissed reports that ministers were seriously looking at carbon pricing as “kite-flying”, which could lead to a patchwork of carbon taxes in politically acceptable areas. Taxes that add to costs for consumers are unlikely to be a vote-winner, but any plan that continues to defer making the case for the costs of transition will not be a serious one.

Delivering net zero was never going to be easy for economies built on carbon. But whether it is on public engagement, delivery or investment, the path is becoming clearer – even if politicians still need to prove themselves willing to take it.

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The Institute for Government hosted a special international, one-day conference on climate governance and the route to net zero ahead of COP26.