Net zero: how government can meet its climate change target

Sep 07 2020

Stronger leadership and co-ordination from the prime minister is needed if the UK’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050 is to be credible says a report from the Institute for Government.

The report warns that over a year on from adopting the target – a decision made by Theresa May but which Boris Johnson has endorsed since becoming prime minister – the UK has not yet confronted the scale of the task.

Meeting the commitment is a more difficult challenge than responding to the coronavirus crisis or getting Brexit done, and will require transformations in every sector of the UK economy, sustained investment over three decades and substantial changes to everyone’s lives.  

The report says a lack of co-ordinated policies, constant changes of direction, a failure to gain public consent for measures and too little engineering expertise and delivery capability has left the UK well off track to meet its target. The absence of a comprehensive plan for achieving net zero has deterred private sector investment and left people unsure of how to act.

It calls on government to publish a clear plan setting out, sector by sector, how emissions reductions will be achieved and when decisions will be made where technology is uncertain. The Cabinet Office should be made responsible for co-ordinating the plan and holding departments to account for delivery.

Many businesses have been left ‘burned’ by unexpected changes in direction after making investments when a policy framework appeared stable, says the report. As well as losing taxpayers £100m, the NAO estimated that the cancellation of CCS in 2015 resulted in £80m of losses for businesses, while interviewees told the authors the decision led to a loss of trust in government.

The government needs to work out how to pay for the shift to a carbon neutral economy – estimated at 1–2% of GDP per year – and how to ensure costs are distributed fairly. It should also renew its focus on preparing for the impacts of a changing climate, such as increased flooding and heatwaves.  

If the UK fails to show that it is serious about its climate change targets, it risks wasting a golden opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the fight against climate change when it hosts next year’s rescheduled COP26 summit. 

The report recommends that the government should:

  • Take responsibility for net zero out of BEIS, which lacks the clout to develop and implement the necessary plan, and create a new net zero unit in the Cabinet Office with a senior Cabinet Office minister given responsibility for net zero
  • Ensure that the Treasury makes net zero a big theme of the spending review and produces a tax strategy to support net zero
  • Build on parliament’s climate assembly initiative to maintain public support for action
  • Create a climate change cadre, with science and engineering expertise at its core, within the civil service
  • Build on the successful model of the Olympic Delivery Authority to ensure big changes like housing retrofit and the switch to electric vehicles happen smoothly
  • Support the creation of a dedicated parliamentary net zero committee to hold the government to account on progress in reducing emissions

Download the report
Institute for Government

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