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The UK government’s response to net zero progress report lacks clarity and urgency

02 November 2023

Despite some progress, UK climate policy falls short of the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations in key areas.

The UK government’s response to net zero progress report lacks clarity and urgency
The Boiler Upgrade Scheme helps homes replace gas boilers with heat pumps. Image credit: Shutterstock

The UK’s Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) 2023 progress report on net zero carried a troubling message.

Progress has slowed over the past year, leadership is lacking, and gaps remain in vital areas.

The UK government has now responded to the CCC’s assessment.

It says it’s acting on 85% of the CCC’s priority recommendations and the majority of the remaining 273 recommendations.

However, this is mainly through existing commitments rather than new announcements.

Here are five key takeaways from the response:

1. Progress on the energy transition

The new Energy Act 2023 delivers on several of the CCC’s recommendations.

It gives Ofgem an explicit net zero mandate and the powers to regulate heat networks.

The act also confirms the new independent Future System Operator. This will be responsible for ensuring a secure and decarbonised energy supply.

The government also seems to be listening to the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) recent advice to rule out hydrogen in home heating.

The response suggests that hydrogen heating will at most play a very limited role. But ultimately there’ll be no final decision on the technology until 2026.

Faster planning and grid connections

Delays in planning and grid connections are major barriers to delivering new renewable energy infrastructure.

The government has already published an action plan for reducing delays to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.

Later this year, it will respond to the Electricity Networks Commissioner's recommendations on accelerating deployment of electricity transmission infrastructure.

The response to the CCC also confirms the UK will get its first ever spatial plan for energy infrastructure – as recommended by the commissioner.

2. Lack of demand reduction measures remains a risk

One area the government and CCC are more at odds is on reducing energy demand.

The government says it doesn’t want to ‘force families to make costly and burdensome changes’ to achieve net zero.

It disagrees with some of the CCC’s recommendations, including how high to raise the energy efficiency standard of homes.

But the CCC has also highlighted the importance of public engagement for delivering net zero.

While the government talks of a Public Engagement Framework, it gives no timeframe for its release.

More encouragingly, the government has confirmed it may expand the funding pot for the Boiler Upgrade Scheme.

The scheme helps households replace gas boilers with heat pumps. The maximum claim was recently increased from £5,000 to £7,500.

But, as the announcement wasn’t accompanied by a larger budget, the scheme will serve fewer homes overall. So, any uplift in the overall budget would be welcome.

3. Mixed progress on the electric vehicle transition

The government’s reluctance to develop demand side interventions extends to transport.

The CCC wants limits to future traffic growth. But the government disagreed with the need for a systematic review of roadbuilding projects, as has happened in Wales.

It says the next Road Investment Strategy (RIS3) will still align with the UK’s environmental goals.

On the plus side, the zero emission vehicle mandate has now been confirmed. It requires 80% of new cars and 70% of new vans sold in Great Britain to be zero emission by 2030.

The CCC says the mandate could minimise the emissions impact of the Prime Minister’s decision to delay the phase-out of new petrol cars to 2035.

But it’s still worried the move has created further uncertainty.

Delivering enough public charge points remains a huge challenge.

But the government hasn’t announced any new measures and a pilot for the Rapid Charger Fund has been repeatedly delayed.

4. Too many big issues kicked down the road

The government says it wants to deliver net zero in ‘a pragmatic, proportionate and realistic way’.

While this is admirable, too many long-term issues continue to be given, at best, only lip service, adding to the overall risks and challenges.

There’s still no plan to address the fiscal risks from transport's decarbonisation pathway – such as some form of road pricing to replace revenues from Fuel Duty and Vehicle Excise Duty.

The response also doesn’t acknowledge the failure of the last Contracts for Difference round to attract any offshore wind bids.

Whether and how this will be addressed in future rounds remains unclear.

Is net zero governance strong enough?

Governance arrangements fall short of what both the CCC and Chris Skidmore MP, in his net zero review, think is necessary.

The government disagrees with the need for a wider minister-led infrastructure delivery group for energy initiatives.

It says this can be achieved through the existing Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

Nor has it established a designated senior unit within the department to ensure cross-departmental coordination, as recommended by CCC.

5. Where’s the transparency?

It’s also worrying that there's no acknowledgement that the UK is off track to meet the sixth carbon budget.

Instead, the government argues it's still on course to meet its climate goals despite recent policy rollbacks.

But it’s refusing to show how exactly how it will achieve this.

Recommendations by the CCC to improve annual reporting on net zero progress haven’t been adopted.

And the government has told the Environmental Audit Committee it won’t give Parliament an updated Carbon Budget Delivery Plan.

Only last year, the High Court ruled the government must show its workings on net zero.

Might this latest claim also be tested in the courts?

It’s also concerning that the government’s response to the CCC was published the day before Parliament was prorogued for the King’s Speech.

These choices make it difficult to apply any parliamentary scrutiny to the response and claims about progress.

The ICE’s view

The government is right to point out that the UK has made major progress towards net zero.

But the remaining emissions cuts will be much harder to achieve – yet things seem to be going backward.

Too many long-term policy gaps identified by the CCC and the NIC remain unaddressed.

The public needs to play its part in net zero but the lack of engagement and mixed messaging are making it harder for people to make sustainable choices.

That’s why the ICE and All-Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure (APPGI) has launched a consultation on public engagement and net zero.

In too many areas, this latest response from the UK government falls short of providing the clarity and confidence that the UK is on track.

There’s no more time to waste.

In case you missed it

  • The ICE and APPGI are welcoming responses to a consultation on what the public can do differently to support the net zero transition.
  • ICE Policy Fellow John Pelton examines what the HS2 cancellation tells us about UK transport policy.
  • The ICE discusses the key infrastructure takeaways from this year’s Conservative Party Conference.
  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE