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5 takeaways from the UK government’s response to net zero progress reviews

11 April 2023

The UK government provided more detail about net zero delivery, but gaps across transport, energy and public engagement remain unaddressed.

5 takeaways from the UK government’s response to net zero progress reviews
The UK government didn't implement Mission Zero’s recommendation for a ‘revolution’ in onshore wind. Image credit: Shutterstock

The UK government has responded to two independent assessments of its approach to delivering net zero:

Both the CCC and Mission Zero called for more urgency and clarity on how net zero will be delivered.

The responses appeared days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned the window for limiting climate change to 1.5C is closing fast.

Here are the key takeaways from the government’s responses:

1. Policy gaps are a growing risk to net zero

The government says it’s partly or fully acting on 23 of Mission Zero’s 25 recommendations for 2025. Many of the CCC’s recommendations are also being acted on.

Its responses to the reports were published alongside an updated Net Zero Strategy.

It also published data showing the UK is on track to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (2023-27 and 2028-32).

However, even with the updated policy announcements, the government is slightly off track to meet its sixth carbon sixth budget (2033-2038).

This was the first carbon budget set since the net zero target became law.

The government is essentially acknowledging its current policies will not quite be enough to deliver net zero – something the CCC warned about in its progress report.

The expected shortfall is only small, but it underscores the need for strong, stable policy frameworks to keep the UK on track.

This is increasingly important as the sixth carbon budget marks the period when harder-to-abate sectors must start delivering large emissions reductions.

2. No onshore wind ‘revolution’ for England

Decarbonising energy is expected to make a big contribution to meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets.

Mission Zero called for an onshore wind ‘revolution’ to accelerate the transition.

However, the government has not overturned the effective ban on new onshore wind projects in England. Instead, a consultation is underway on allowing projects with strong local support.

The government did agree to expedite setting up the previously announced Great British Nuclear. This will lead delivery of Britain’s nuclear programme to complement renewables.

Other announcements in line with Mission Zero’s recommendations included:

  • a new joint government/industry taskforce for solar power
  • long-term commitments to Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS)
  • a delivery roadmap for scaling up hydrogen production, to be published this year
  • a commitment to set out how gas versus electricity pricing will be rebalanced by the end of 2023/4

In its progress report, the CCC highlighted the need to integrate climate adaptation into energy security policies.

The government says the UK has a ‘highly resilient’ electricity supply.

However, the CCC’s recent adaptation progress report found only ‘mixed progress’ towards ensuring system level security of supply.

There are risks that still need to be addressed, as the ICE explored in a recent policy paper on making the UK’s infrastructure more climate resilient.

3. Transport emissions expected to remain flat

Surface transport is the largest emitting sector in the UK. Emissions are now expected to remain largely flat until 2027.

This is despite the faster than expected uptake of electric cars – which has exceeded the CCC’s projected trajectory.

Outside that success, the government’s actions often fall short of the CCC’s recommendations.

Issues that remain unaddressed include:

  • a reliance on the private sector to expand the EV charging network
  • the lack of a plan to remove diesel trains by 2040
  • the absence of measures to address price imbalances between high- and low-emission forms of transport
  • the need to replace fuel duty with a new road pricing model

Both the CCC and Mission Zero highlighted the benefits of developing a more coherent, intermodal vision of the role transport needs to play in delivering net zero.

The ICE recently launched a consultation on whether England needs a national transport strategy to help provide this vision.

4. More demand-side action needed

The CCC emphasised that demand-side policies are needed to decarbonise transport and energy.

Transport emissions will remain high partly because there’s no strategy to reduce demand for car travel.

In the energy sector, the CCC called for contingency plans to mitigate the risk of over-relying on unproven engineered solutions, such as hydrogen and CCUS.

The government says that removals are ‘a complement to, rather than a substitute for’ decarbonisation.

But measures to improve energy efficiency are short of the commitments called for by the CCC.

The Great British Insulation Scheme is a rebrand of the existing ECO+ scheme with no new investment announced.

The CCC’s call for a net zero public engagement strategy hasn’t been implemented.

The government promises more detail will be set out in the coming months. But it says ‘we don't believe in telling people how to live their lives’.

However, public engagement doesn’t need to be coercive. A strategy must emphasise the wider benefits of decarbonisation and the opportunities to improve people’s lives.

5. Embedding net zero in government

Mission Zero said a new Office for Net Zero Delivery was needed to coordinate action across government departments.

Rather than implement this, the government set up the standalone Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to drive delivery of net zero.

It also highlights the updated Green Book, procurement measures, civil service training and other measures it has taken to embed net zero in decision-making.

But gaps identified by the CCC remain.

There remain unanswered questions about how net zero will be delivered and the roles and responsibilities across different levels of government.

The certainty and level of future funding also falls short of what the CCC says is needed to scale up the transition over the next decade.

The ICE’s view:

There’s more policy detail and transparency about how the UK will reach net zero than a year ago.

However, the government’s updated Net Zero Strategy largely restated existing policy.

It means the government missed the opportunity to provide the certainty and start taking the difficult policy decisions the CCC and Mission Zero called for.

There’s little margin for error in delivering net zero.

A greater sense of urgency is needed to put in place strong policies that enable key sectors to ramp up the transition.

In case you missed it:

  • The ICE analyses the UK Climate Change Committee’s latest adaptation progress report, which shows the UK is underprepared for the climate challenges ahead.
  • As part of a new consultation, the ICE is asking: does England need a national transport strategy?
  • Our latest Infrastructure Policy Watch looks at reforms to Infrastructure Australia and the impact of extreme weather on New Zealand’s infrastructure.

You can also sign up to ICE Informs to get a monthly digest of the latest policy activities from the ICE, including calls for evidence to support our ongoing advice to policymakers.

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE