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Government has 'no plan' for achieving net zero, says PAC report

05 March 2021

ICE analyses a Public Accounts Committee report that has criticised the UK government for having no plan to address climate change.

Government has 'no plan' for achieving net zero, says PAC report
Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said the government 'still has no plan'.

Following a short inquiry, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has today published a highly critical report on the UK government's plans to achieve net zero warning that, almost two years on from the 2050 target becoming law, there is no plan for achieving it. The inquiry was based on a National Audit Office report on the same topic last December.

ICE submitted evidence to the inquiry noting that achieving the decarbonisation target will require extensive coordination, clearer accountability for delivery and a shift in narrative away from the ‘challenge’ to the ‘opportunity’.

What the PAC report says

The report highlights that the government has no plan for achieving the net-zero target, and that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) needs to produce a net-zero strategy and linked sector strategies that outline a clear timeline of key milestones and decision points towards 2050.

The PAC also calls on BEIS to develop clear metrics to provide transparency on system-wide progress towards net zero. Turning to other departments, the report recommended HM Treasury gives clearer guidance to departments on how net zero will be used to judge spending across all of Whitehall.

Beyond Westminster and Whitehall, the committee also calls on BEIS to develop a process to ensure the UK doesn’t achieve the 2050 net-zero target by exporting or transferring our emissions to other countries, which the committee sees as a real risk.

They also call on the department to develop a public engagement strategy, noting that the transition will require behavioural change by the public.

Lastly, the committee highlights the need for the government as a whole to consider how local authorities can contribute to the transition to net zero, ensuring they have the funding, skills, resources and outcomes to deliver.

Why are the PAC's findings important?

ICE has been looking at the policy changes needed to achieve the legally-binding 2050 net-zero carbon target since it was passed into law. This inquiry is just one of many ICE has submitted evidence to that are looking at the topic from different angles.

The UK was the first country in the world to legislate for the target, but beyond that there are many pieces missing to make sense of the puzzle. Having a target is just the start, there needs to be other policies put in place to achieving it.

ICE's submission to the inquiry recommended four areas where the committee should probe government plans:

  • The committee should explore what policy is being developed by departments to make actions perceived as difficult to do by the public, easier.
  • The committee should explore if departments, from their perspective, have clarity on a net-zero economy's wider benefits beyond climate change targets.
  • The committee should explore who is ultimately accountable in government for ensuring relevant policy aligns with the net-zero ambition.
  • The committee should explore whether public and arms-length bodies have or will be made to review their day-to-day activities and spending to check compatibility with the net-zero target. The Committee should also explore what plans exist for regulatory reform to bring regulation more in line with current national objectives and legal requirements.

ICE's view on the PAC report

The report aligns with ICE's thinking on what is needed. The government needs a strategy to deliver the net-zero target (as we said in State of the Nation 2020) and we've outlined the key questions and trade-offs that need to be answered.

We agree with the committee that local authorities have a strong role to play in supporting the transition, particularly in nudging the public towards reducing carbon in transport, but they have so far been left out.

The public will also be crucial to the next stage of the transition, and we agree with the committee that there needs to be a public engagement campaign (another recommendation from State of the Nation 2020).

One of the key takeaways from net-zero policy development for future policy is the importance of having a sense of direction to back up major announcements. The net-zero target will have been enshrined in law for two years before a strategy even comes to fruition.

What else needs to happen?

There are areas in which the committee could have gone further, particularly on how net zero is portrayed and the role that utility regulators will need to play.

The narrative around the net-zero target needs to change to garner greater public buy-in. At the moment, it's presented as a significant challenge which needs to be overcome regardless of the cost. However, there are other impacts over and above halting a rise in global warming that come as additional benefits (significant as that is).

Net-zero infrastructure is cheaper to deliver and is cheaper for the consumer in the long term.

A net-zero economy also supports UK economic competitiveness through greater resource efficiency and provides business opportunities as the world looks to decarbonise at pace and scale. The issue could be seen more as an opportunity to invest now for later.

The report is also silent on the role of utilities regulators, this is an important area where we know work is underway within government. Energy regulator Ofgem has recently recommended fundamental changes to the system of regulation of the electricity market. Similar changes may be required in other sectors.

  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers