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UK to speed up carbon emission cuts – what does this mean for infrastructure?

22 April 2021

As the UK Government commits to steeper cuts in carbon emissions, and governments globally set ambitious targets, ICE analyses the impact this will have on the infrastructure sector.

UK to speed up carbon emission cuts – what does this mean for infrastructure?
Green infrastructure

This week, the UK Government set a legal target to cut its carbon emissions by 78%, against 1990 levels, by 2035. The new target is a step forward from a previous goal of 68% emissions reduction by 2030, which was already one of the most ambitious plans globally.

The target represents the government accepting the advice of its independent Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) sixth Carbon Budget to adopt the emission cuts on the path to net zero by 2050. Significantly, emissions from international aviation and shipping have also been included in the new target, as per the CCC’s advice – the first time this has happened.

The target is impressive and ambitious, and has been broadly welcomed by the business and investment communities as giving a clearer sense of direction and positioning the UK as a global leader in decarbonisation.

Collective international action

The UK target was confirmed ahead of a major US-led climate summit taking place on Earth Day, where President Biden outlined a new national goal for carbon reduction – a halving of the country’s emissions by 2030. This commitment came shortly after the US committed $2 trillion to improve its infrastructure.

The UK and US were not the only governments to commit to steeper emission cuts. 40 world leaders were present at the summit, with a number of nations including Japan, Argentina and Canada making similar pledges.

The summit bolstered efforts to secure an ambitious wave of national climate action plans ahead of COP26, currently scheduled to take place in November 2021, in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius.

Where’s the plan?

Promising big is relatively easy, but the details on how the target will be achieved remain murky.

The adoption of the advice within the CCC’s sixth Carbon Budget further ramps up the pressure on the UK Government to come forward with ambitious decarbonisation policies for delivery.

With this in mind, it is important to recognise that the UK was already falling short in meeting some of the original targets. As ICE has highlighted, progress assessments on both the fourth and fifth Carbon Budgets showed the UK was behind plan.

In fact, a new report from the Green Alliance has warned that, based on current policies, the UK is set to badly overshoot its emissions targets for 2030 and beyond without significant investment in net zero.

ICE has recommended that a systems-wide Net Zero Infrastructure Plan is put in place to provide industry with policy certainty and a stable framework within which it can invest in net-zero infrastructure.

There are a variety of plans due to come out this year that should include further detail on government’s thinking, including an overarching Net Zero Strategy, Transport Decarbonisation Plan, and the Treasury’s Net Zero Review.

It is important that these outline clear policies alongside ambitions if the UK is to reach its net zero goal.

Sweeping changes to our infrastructure

Last year, the CCC outlined that meeting its recommended goals for the 2035 would require the complete decarbonisation of the electricity grid, the widespread adoption of electric vehicles and green heating systems, steep emissions cuts from industry through technology like carbon capture and storage, an entire new industry established to produce and utilise hydrogen, and widespread retrofit of existing buildings and infrastructure.

Some of these goals are well underway, with the grid decarbonising rapidly due to the deployment of renewables. Under its most ambitious scenario, National Grid predicts that the electricity system could be carbon-negative from 2033 if carbon capture and storage technology is implemented successfully.

In short, the infrastructure landscape in just 14 years’ time will look very different if the 2035 target is met. This would represent significantly faster change than even the industrial revolution – and on a global scale not seen before.

The CCC’s stance that the 2020’s will be vital in delivering on ambitious targets rings truer than ever.

Related links

  • David Hawkes, head of policy at ICE