The UK is behind on climate action but the public wants to keep going

This post first appeared on Business Green.

In The Guns of August, a bestselling account of the first month of World War One, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote: “no more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard and fast and specific decision”. The government is in the midst of one such moment, with time running out to act on climate change. Ministers must decide quickly how the UK will make the transition to a net zero world. 

When it comes to climate ambition, the UK government can claim to be a climate leader. After all, we were not only the first major economy to set a legally binding 2050 net zero target but also one of the first to commit to phase out coal use for energy. However, transforming these ambitions into measurable results has proved to be a major sticking point and is now a cause for concern.  

Progress on important decarbonisation strategies has been excruciatingly slow. The heat and buildings strategy, urgently needed to get our homes on the right pathway to net zero emissions, has been delayed from early 2021 and is still unpublished. The government’s net zero strategy and the Treasury’s net zero review are both suffering the same fate, sitting in the doldrums. 

The absence of detail on how exactly the UK will reach its climate targets and, crucially, how it will fund it, has left a void for the sceptics to fill, with calls for delays and watered down policies. To silence this growing noise, now is the time for leadership with strong decarbonisation plans that set out pathways and clearly outline the benefits. 

Climate action is off track because there’s a lack of clear direction
Since the start of 2020, Green Alliance has been closely tracking the UK’s progress in cutting emissions. In the latest update of our Net zero policy tracker, we calculate that new policies announced since the start of 2020 will get us, together with existing action, to just under a quarter of the way to meeting the targets set for the fifth carbon budget (2028-32). 

Further policy is needed across all sectors to close the emissions gap and put every part of the economy on track to net zero. For example, in transport, the largest emitting sector in the UK, and one that has seen no progress since 1990, policies announced since the start of 2020 will only have helped to cut its emissions by around a quarter of the amount needed by the fifth carbon budget period. Buildings policies will only reduce emissions by about a third, and sectors such as waste and agriculture and land use have seen very little progress at all. 

Public investment in this 21st century challenge highlights the yawning gap between ambition and action. Since January 2020, the government has pledged funding of £37.6 billion for climate and nature over the course of this parliament. This sounds a lot until you put it in context. WWF has shown that, since March, the government has already spent £40 billion on policies and perverse subsides that drive emissions, such as the freeze on fuel duty. Our calculations show that investment of an extra £22 billion a year over the next three years is what is needed for the UK to take effective action on climate and nature.

Ambitious action has wide public support
Hitting the UK’s emissions targets won’t be easy. Most of the government’s commendable progress to date has come from the low hanging fruit, both politically and logistically. Nearly invisible to most of us, the phasing out of coal for electricity generation and replacement with renewable and other low carbon energy sources was the easy part of this journey. That said, there are still some quick wins on offer and a wealth of benefits to reap.

There could be greater emissions cutting progress in the transport and building sectors if the government committed to its policies out for consultation, such as the implementation of a zero emission vehicle mandate. If implemented, these policies would bring total emissions savings to 35 per cent of the projected 2028-32 gap. The forthcoming net zero strategy is the chance for the government to move on these.

Even with these potential savings, there is still a long way to go to cut emissions at the rate needed, and transport is the sector with the steepest hill to climb. Beyond the quick wins, further decarbonisation will require changes to how we all live at some level: how we travel, what we consume and how the land is used. But the public mandate for these more far reaching actions is strong. Recent polling by Opinium found that most people in almost every demographic are more concerned over the cost of climate inaction more than the cost of implementing climate policies. 

Going back to Barbara Tuchman, climate change may be a distressing moment but action to tackle it doesn’t have to be. With only a few weeks before we host the Glasgow climate summit, the prime minister and chancellor should together be leading the way.

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