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UK progress on net zero is slowing, Climate Change Committee warns

28 June 2023

The Climate Change Committee has warned that current policies won’t deliver net zero – here’s what it means for UK infrastructure.

UK progress on net zero is slowing, Climate Change Committee warns
The CCC says that the number of new heat pumps installed in 2022 is well below what is needed to meet carbon reduction targets. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has published its annual report on the UK’s progress towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The CCC’s analysis and recommendations follow the UK government’s Carbon Budget Delivery Plan – essentially an updated Net Zero Strategy – published in March.

The CCC’s overall message is a troubling one. The UK’s progress on delivering net zero has slowed over the past year, leadership is lacking, and gaps remain in vital areas, such as reducing demand for energy.

Here are five takeaways from the report:

1. Greater transparency means greater scrutiny

The Carbon Budget Delivery Plan provides much more transparency than previous government net zero documents.

It quantifies how much each individual government policy contributes to reducing carbon emissions, making it easier for the CCC to work out which policies are working, and which aren’t.

The UK’s carbon emissions grew very slightly in 2022 (by 0.8%) compared to 2021, mainly due to Covid-19 restrictions being lifted.

The broader picture is one of progress: the UK’s emissions are now 46% of 1990 levels, and remain 9% lower than they were in 2019, before the pandemic.

But there’s still a huge effort needed to meet net zero emissions.

With more detail than ever before on the UK’s net zero policies, the CCC has been able to conduct its most thorough assessment.

Worryingly, the CCC’s confidence in the achievement of the UK’s 2030 Nationally Determined Contributions target (agreed at COP26) and the Fifth and Sixth Carbon Budgets has markedly declined from last year.

2. Big gaps remain in net zero infrastructure policy

The CCC report echoes the National Infrastructure Commission’s warnings in the Infrastructure Progress Review earlier this year that net zero progress is slowing.

For example, the installation rates of energy efficiency measures in 2022 were well below what’s needed.

The CCC has called this slow progress “troubling”, and its report finds that plans to meet 18% of required emissions reduction are either inadequate or completely missing.

From an infrastructure perspective, the most prominent gaps are in energy efficiency and engineered greenhouse gas removals.

The CCC has also identified risks to emissions reduction from surface transport and electricity supply.

These are mainly due to delays in developing the zero-emissions vehicle mandate and the continued lack of a strategy for decarbonising the electricity system.

On top of this, significant risks identified in the CCC’s report from last year remain for a number of areas, including the decarbonisation of heat in homes and new nuclear capacity.

3. Some short-term progress has been made…

The CCC finds “glimmers of the net zero transition” visible in electric vehicle (EV) sales and the continued deployment of renewable energy capacity.

In fact, EV sales in 2022 continued to grow at a pace ahead of the CCC’s transition pathway.

This progress means the CCC’s confidence in the UK meeting the Fourth Carbon Budget (2023-2027) has slightly increased over the last year.

However, the growth in EVs underscores the urgency of replacing the current motoring tax regime.

The creation of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) is also seen as a positive step that better focuses the net zero transition.

The report calls for a specific unit within DESNZ to be set up to coordinate net-zero delivery across government.

4. …But we need to move much, much faster

One of the report’s core findings is that there’s an overall lack of urgency in delivering the net zero transition.

The 2050 net zero target was legislated almost four years ago to the day and is scheduled to take around three decades. But there’s no sustained programme of action in place.

There are still many ‘easy wins’, and the CCC says that “pace should be prioritised over perfection”.

For example, the government has said it won’t make a decision on its preferred low-carbon heating option until 2026.

This delay is creating uncertainty and deterring investment, slowing the growth of supply chains.

The CCC encourages the government to push ahead with electrification urgently, via a major heat pump rollout.

The slow progress to date means that the CCC has said the government cannot justify any new strategies unless they contain committed policies.

It also means the UK is missing out on investment in net zero at a time when global competitors are taking a stronger leadership position.

5. More public engagement is needed

The report highlights that the government is taking too narrow an approach to net zero solutions. This tends to focus on technological solutions and exclude demand-side policies.

This means more attention must be paid to cross-cutting enablers of net zero, such as public engagement.

While there’s growing public support for net zero, awareness about how people can contribute is lower.

Research commissioned by the ICE shows the public would find it difficult to make positive changes to lower their emissions in 10 key areas, such as living car-free.

Garnering public support and understanding what’s holding people back from making low-carbon choices is vital.

The ICE will soon begin a programme of work looking at net zero infrastructure and behaviour change, aiming to fill in some of the gaps in current policy.

The ICE’s view:

The need for action to meet the challenge of climate change has never been clearer – the UK’s carbon emissions need to fall by 57% by 2035 in order to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget – yet things seem to be going backward.

The government needs to establish clear policy frameworks to fill in the gaps the CCC has identified to get back on track. There’s no more time to waste.

While the progress report doesn’t paint a positive picture, the ICE agrees with the CCC that this is a key moment to remake the arguments for faster progress.

With the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act and EU’s Net Zero Industry Act incentivising huge levels of investment into new technology and the infrastructure needed to support the net zero transition, the UK cannot afford to hesitate.

Do you want to shape how governments plan and prioritise infrastructure? Respond to our EBI Green Paper Programme.

ICE Policy Fellow Graham Dalton asks: what exactly is the plan for UK transport?

  • David Hawkes, head of policy at ICE