Was 2020 a green ‘super year’ for the UK?

At the start of last year, 2020 was heralded by world leaders, green campaigners and businesses alike as a ‘super year’ for the environment and a ‘make or break year’ for lining up climate and nature action in the new decade. The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has severely disrupted how we hoped the year would pan out, namely in the postponement of the UN biodiversity summit (COP15) and the Glasgow climate summit (COP26). However, despite those COP shaped holes, there has still been movement on climate globally, with Japan, China, the EU and South Korea – covering almost half of global emissions – following the UK’s lead to make mid-century net zero targets, and the US is likely to follow suit once President-elect Joe Biden takes office. 

Decarbonisation plans for transport, homes and power
But what about the UK? Last year, we saw the government take leaps and bounds to fulfil the leadership position expected of COP presidents by committing to several bold policies to decarbonise the economy. 

Of particular note are the government’s decisions last month to adopt the nationally determined contribution (NDC) of reducing UK emissions by 68 per cent in 2030 compared with 1990 levels and to stop financing overseas fossil fuel projects through UK Export Finance (UKEF).

Plans to achieve the UK’s emissions targets were outlined in the prime minister’s ten point plan for a green industrial revolution. Most ambitious of these is a new 2030 phase out date for sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans, and a 2035 phase-out date for sales of new hybrids. On top of this, the government has made a genuinely world leading decision to consult on the phase out date of diesel powered heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). These policies will have a significant impact on decarbonising the transport sector, the largest emitting sector in the UK, currently accounting for 35 per cent of UK emissions.

The Green Homes Grant, announced in the chancellor’s summer statement, was part of his green recovery plan. This scheme, which has £2 billion of financial backing, marks a major step in improving the energy efficiency of UK housing stock and, if deployed well, could give us the ‘triple-win’ of a huge number of new jobs, reduced energy consumption and lower energy bills for consumers.

A third announcement, in October, saw the government increase its offshore wind capacity target from 30GW to 40GW by 2030. If it achieves this, it would, in the words of the prime minister, mark out the UK as “the Saudi Arabia of wind power”.

Moving beyond ambition 
But, despite these very welcome announcements, our end of year round up reveals that there is still sizeable shortfall in the government spending and policy needed to reach the UK’s own stated, and legally binding, emissions reductions targets. These include the stretching net zero target for 2050, set last year.

According to our calculations, last year’s policy announcements together promise an overall cut of 135 MtCO2e in the period 2028 to 2032, known as the fifth carbon budget period. It has also pledged new funding of £26 billion over the course of the next parliament for low carbon transport and housing, nature based infrastructure and industrial decarbonisation, amongst other things.

This sounds impressive, until it’s compared with the size of the task at hand. Added up, it gets us to 16 per cent of the total emissions reductions needed to be on the right track to reach net zero during the fifth carbon budget. This leaves an eye-watering 849 MtCO2e still to cut and £22 billion additional annual spending needed to do it. 

To plug these gaps, the government should set out a coherent, detailed long term strategy in 2021. As a start, more joined up efforts are needed across government departments, so there is a cohesive economy-wide framework for climate action. This framework will need long term funding and policies which facilitate greater public-private collaboration on climate goals.

And, if the government wants to position itself as a global climate leader this year, it must iron out the glaring inconsistencies in current domestic policy. These include the £27 billion new roads programme, which will increase car use, the failure to ban peat burning which is currently a net source of CO2 emissions, and the government’s highly ambiguous position on plans for high carbon projects, such as the deep coal mine in Cumbria and a third runway at Heathrow Airport. 

Whilst last year did not quite materialise as the super year for the environment that was hoped for, it is undeniable that we saw widespread recognition that a green recovery from Covid makes economic sense as well as a sea change in climate ambition across the globe and especially in the UK. For a true super year, though, ambition and pledges need to be followed by serious spending commitments and measurable action. We’ll be looking for these in the government’s new year’s resolutions for 2021.

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