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How ready is the UK to deliver net zero?

09 July 2021

Climate Change Committee reports warn of inadequate progress in the UK’s readiness to meet its ambitious net zero target and adapt to climate change.

How ready is the UK to deliver net zero?
The CCC notes the 15% fall in emissions from the power sector along with the increase in capacity and utilisation of low-carbon generation. Image credit: Shutterstock

In its annual Progress Report to Parliament the Climate Change Committee (CCC) cautions that while the "early foundations for a decade of delivery are being put in place" comprehensive net zero strategy and realistic policy continue to lag behind genuine ambition.

Several key strategies have been delayed, including government’s overarching Net Zero Strategy and the Treasury’s Net Zero Review, which are needed to set clear, integrated policies and a plan for funding decarbonisation.

Meanwhile, the CCC’s Third Independent Assessment of UK Climate Resilience warned of an adaptation deficit as policy and implementation are not keeping pace with the rising risks and impacts of climate change.

The UK is likely to face more weather-related hazards, such as higher average and extreme temperatures, and changing rainfall patterns, but climate resilience remains "a second-order issue" according to the CCC, under-resourced despite the UK having the capacity to respond effectively to climate change.

Net zero progress and the impact of Covid-19

The CCC estimates that total UK emissions fell by 13% in 2020, but attributes this largely to travel restrictions imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic; emissions from surface transport fell by 18%.

However, the unique nature of the pandemic means most of the sectoral falls in emissions are likely to be transient and cannot be attributed to the structural changes required to deliver net zero.

Nevertheless, this is still a limited window to 'lock in' systemic and behavioural changes that could benefit decarbonisation, including sustaining increased active travel.

Progress made in infrastructure planning

Given the critical role infrastructure will play in delivering net zero, the CCC commends progress made on planning and funding for the sector since its last report.

This includes the new National Infrastructure Strategy and the UK Infrastructure Bank, both of which ICE had advocated for as key components of an effective national infrastructure framework.

Other policies now largely aligned with the CCC’s recommendations include the commitments to achieve 40 GW of offshore wind, and phase out conventional petrol and diesel cars, both by 2030.

The report also notes the 15% fall in emissions from the power sector along with the increase in capacity and utilisation of low-carbon generation, which reflects "genuine underlying progress".

Key challenges for the UK’s infrastructure sector

The CCC expresses concerns about underlying progress in several sectors.

First, surface transport remains the UK’s highest emitting sector. The CCC criticises a lack of focus in government on reducing the need to travel, while substantial road-building investment continues and car demand is increasing.

Electric vehicle (EV) sales have grown, but they must continue rising at a rapid pace during the 2020s and be supported by the widespread deployment of charging infrastructure: public charge points will need to rise from 20,800 now to almost 280,000 across the UK by 2030.

This needs to be combined with demand-side action and investment in high-quality public transport, which ICE explored in a recent discussion paper, as well as active travel infrastructure to support a 6% reduction in car travel by 2030.

Second, the report criticises the "very poor" progress in upgrading the UK’s building stock with energy efficiency measures and heat pumps, and calls for a comprehensive policy package for buildings decarbonisation.

Third, there is a lack of data for assessing progress in decarbonising industry, including the construction sector. Nevertheless, the CCC calls for new construction standards to improve energy and resource efficiency in the sector.

Fourth, despite underlying progress in the energy sector, more ambition is needed in some areas, including low-carbon heat networks, and a strategy setting out the role of hydrogen in the path to net zero.

Finally, the reports call on government to prioritise embedding resilience in critical infrastructure systems. Interruptions to power supply, IT and communication services will have the highest number of knock-on impacts across other infrastructure systems, putting people and the economy at risk.

What next?

With the net zero target set, the CCC wants focus to switch to accelerating delivery across the board with a rapid scale-up of low-carbon investment and choices.

Policies need to be developed at a greater pace. The Net Zero Strategy and Net Zero Review are crucial, but there are a number of sectoral reports, such as the Transport Decarbonisation Plan and Hydrogen Strategy, which are also needed to set out how the infrastructure sector can contribute to reaching net-zero emissions.

The CCC’s call for a framework for a well-adapted UK, embedding climate risk in all policies and investments related to key national goals, echoes the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) proposals for government and the infrastructure sector to prioritise resilience.

Climate adaptation will be an ongoing process. In our evidence to the NIC, ICE highlighted the need to tackle a silo culture, strengthen understanding of interdependencies and develop a common approach across the sector to improve resilience efforts.

Incase you missed it...

ICE's State of the Nation 2020 report: The role of infrastructure in achieving net-zero by 2050

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE