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How can the UK government decarbonise energy by 2035?

01 November 2023

Answering national challenges requires integrated programmes, not piecemeal projects, writes ICE Policy Fellow Simon Webb.

How can the UK government decarbonise energy by 2035?
The CCC called for an overhaul of planning and consenting processes and more resources for local bodies. Image credit: Shutterstock

Last week, the UK government responded to the Climate Change Committee’s 2023 progress report.

Warning that progress on net zero is slowing, the report made 27 priority recommendations – including to "create a minister-led infrastructure delivery group to deliver a decarbonised and resilient power system by 2035”.

Priorities would include reworking planning and consenting rules, giving more resources to consenting bodies, driving strategic investment, and developing skills.

In its response, the government agreed on the importance of speeding up delivery and connection times – but not that it was necessary to create a minister-led group to achieve this.

The plan of action is unclear

The committee’s recommendation recognised the need for cross-departmental coordination and identified a range of structural bodies to achieve the goal.

But on closer inspection, it wasn’t clear in the CCC’s June report how the new group will deliver a decarbonised power system.

Whether the government accepted this recommendation or not, this problem remains: there are specific actions needed from energy providers.

Three key steps

From the ICE’s experience of major infrastructure, there are three key steps.

First, defining an overarching goal for energy infrastructure, which should be consistent with national carbon targets.

Second, setting specific targets for each area, which a parliamentary vote then legitimises.

Third, an integrated programme across the sectors involved in meeting the targets.

A piecemeal approach won’t achieve the major change needed

The Climate Change Committee calls for an overhaul of planning and consenting processes and more resources for local bodies.

But a piecemeal approach seems unlikely to achieve the major change needed. How will planners cope with the huge schemes required for an energy transition?

These activities, which will inevitably inconvenience some communities, need democratic legitimacy at the national level.

The 2008 Planning Act provides a well-known process for development consent orders (DCOs) to authorise specific projects, such as individual solar farms and associated battery stores and grid connections.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has proposed some improvements to these processes.

But, arguably, a more important step is to align the recommendations in an updated national policy statement (NPS) for energy with national carbon targets.

Following scrutiny and a report from the energy select committee, a vote in this parliament would establish the democratic authority of the NPS as a basis for DCOs, which planning inspectors may then consider alongside local concerns.

Thus, an approved NPS would provide a legitimate basis for implementation through a well-developed programme that integrates all necessary steps, including helping the communities affected by the work.

The case for an integrated approach

The Magnox programme

An integrated programme approach can achieve rapid results in responding to significant national challenges.

One such example is the Magnox programme, the civil nuclear power programme of the 1950s–60s.

A new technology was identified rapidly and then tested and proven at a dedicated facility. From that, a national programme delivered 14 stations around the country within a decade.

The key to success was an overarching target to replace fossil fuel dependency, backed by a dedicated organisation that recruited from universities and industry to develop and deliver the programme.

There were mistakes – including too many design variations and too little planning for radioactive waste – but the programme achieved its goal.

Transport for London

A programme approach was also successful in transforming London’s transport system.

Recognising that a borough-based approach was inconsistent with modern problems and technology, the Greater London Authority Act 1999 created an overarching organisation in Transport for London (TfL).

TfL produced a fifty-year vision and plan, which the new London Assembly approved. This formed a solid basis for a programme of new schemes that balanced local disruption against long-term benefits.

It led to new transport links, from vastly improved tube trains to congestion and pollution charging, better-designed bus schemes, and of course, the Elizabeth Line.

The energy sector needs a similar programme

It’s worth noting that, while it wasn’t their main intention, both TfL and the Magnox programme reduced carbon compared to the infrastructure they replaced.

They also attracted new talent. Younger people saw more opportunities in new organisations than in large existing ones.

Rather than passing on challenges to another government oversight group, the Climate Change Committee could use its considerable expertise and clout to support a specific programme of action and skills development for the energy sector.

The decision-making machinery is already in place. The ICE is ready to provide the skilled professionals needed to implement it.

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  • Simon Webb, executive director at Nichols