Targets alone aren’t enough to deliver net zero

This post is by Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government.

Much of the political debate around climate change has focused on the ambition of the target.  Last year Theresa May upped the target laid down in the Climate Change Act, accepting the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC’s) assessment that the UK could reach net zero in 2050.  In the election there was a competition over dates: Lib Dems offered 2045; Labour hinted at 2030. Extinction Rebellion want to eliminate all emissions by 2025.

Legislated targets have proved their worth on climate. Without the disciplines of the Climate Change Act, it is unlikely that we would have made so much progress during the austerity years, when green issues became a coalition battleground and David Cameron reverted from husky hugger to denouncer of “green crap”.

But what is noticeable is that while the UK parliament was happy to up the target after a mere hour and a half’s debate, the assessment by the CCC a month later that the UK was off track to deliver even its previous target of an  80 per cent reduction in emissions (compared to 1990) by 2050 received hardly any parliamentary attention. Far easier for MPs to pass a motion declaring a climate emergency than get to grips with why progress in cutting emissions from housing or transport has stalled, let alone think about voting for a rise in fuel duty.

Net zero leadership needs to come from the centre
The government needs to back up its commitment to a target with a credible net zero plan. It is committed to publish one before next year’s UN climate summit, COP26 but, as our new Institute for Government report shows, it is far from clear it has the machinery in place to develop and deliver a plan that measures up. The lead is with the business department, typically a quite weak Whitehall department, with climate and energy just one of its many priorities, in normal times. With the economy in crisis, the bandwidth and clout to knock departmental heads together is not there. There is no substitute for prime ministerial leadership and a central grip on the plan. 

We have proposed a new net zero unit in the Cabinet Office with the capacity to analyse choices for ministers (replicating David Miliband’s Office for Climate Change), pull those together into a coherent plan that adds up and then oversee delivery to make sure all departments stay on track.

There will be areas where ministers can’t make decisions now. In that case they need to set out how and when they will aim to make key strategic choices, and who they will involve. The plan should provide a clear roadmap to a net zero economy by 2050.

The net zero plan has to be delivered
We point out the barriers to delivering progress in the past: not just underpowered co-ordination, but a lack of policy consistency (scrapping Zero Carbon Homes, carbon capture and storage cancellation) which means business does not have the certainty it needs to invest; a lack of capability (repeated delivery fluffs: the Green Deal and smart meters to name just two) and a lack of public consent. 

So the government needs to address these gaps.  The plan should do some of that if it is properly joined up and soundly based and if those who will have to deliver it are involved in developing it. It will help that the Treasury now seems to be on board. They have a critical role in making sure that the spending review, tax policy and project appraisal all support net zero.    

But there is more to do.  We recommend addressing the capability gaps by actively bringing engineers and scientists into government, and creating a new climate change cadre in the civil service fast stream as a counter to the current churn (it would be good if ministers stayed in post longer too). 

Central government should support local government where there is a lot of enthusiasm for action: Ireland has set up specific offices called Climate Action Regional Offices (CAROs) to do this.  If necessary, the government should create specific delivery bodies to do for net zero what the Olympic Delivery Authority did for London 2012.

The government needs to get – and keep – the public on board
Before the pandemic, concern about climate change was rising. But most of the public don’t know what net zero is and ministers have failed to engage honestly with voters on how it will affect their lives.  Fortunately, parliament has blazed a trail and will be publishing the results of its Climate Assembly.  The government should embrace this, learn lessons and incorporate the public into its decision making. Crucial will be convincing people that the costs of change will be allocated fairly, delivering a “just transition”.

Covid and Brexit are occupying ministers’ time at the moment. But net zero is bigger than both. Ministers need to make our domestic plans a priority and see a credible UK path to net zero as a vital element in enabling them to deliver a successful COP26 next year.

[Photo source: David Howard on Geograph]


  • There is a major error in the report. 1-2% of GDP is the cost in 2050, not the cost per year. The CCC has said quite clearly that the costs in 2020-2049 have not been calculated.

  • The report has a major error. The CCC said that 1-2% of GDP was the cost in 2050 (ie after all the capital works have been completed). They have said quite clearly that they have not calculated the costs in 2020-2049.

    • Reply from Jill Rutter:

      Thanks very much for your comment..

      The CCC makes clear there is an annual recurring cost – probably averaging around 1% a year – rising toward the end as the last emissions are the costliest to remove. But it also makes clear that this is a cost that the government had already accepted with the 0% target set in the original Climate Change Act and that costs so far have been lower, so there is a high degree of uncertainty. There will also be benefits – eg better air quality.

      However, this is not what this blog is about .. it assumed the government is serious about delivering net zero (IFG does not take a position on whether this is the right policy or not) and makes proposals on what the government needs to do about making good its commitments.

  • It is not an annual *recurring* cost. Some costs will rise over the 30 years to 2050 as low hanging fruit are picked, some will fall as economies of scale kick in. But the CCC has *no idea* what the cost is in any of the years 2020-2049 because they have not attempted to calculate a figure. They *assume* that 1-2% of GDP is as high as it gets, but that is no more than a guess. Note that the IET puts the cost of retrofitting insulation to houses at £2 trillion. That makes the CCC’s figures look ridiculous, an impression which is not exactly changed by the CCC’s refusal to release the underlying calculations.

    Question for you: What is the role of the Institute for Government? Are you there to question and challenge?

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