Unless it is well orchestrated the net zero strategy could miss its target

One of the biggest challenges of plotting a route to net zero for the whole economy is ensuring everyone pulls their weight at the right time. It’s like an orchestra, where different instruments have to play different parts at different times to create a harmonious symphony.

The power sector – let’s call it the brass section – did much of the heavy lifting in the early stages with the transition to renewables. Now expectations are falling on road transport and heating, the strings at the heart of our net zero ‘orchestra’. By the end of the decade, the percussion section, including carbon capture and hydrogen should be ready to strike up and take some of the strain, reducing emissions from industry and some other sectors, while other policies, like the methane target agreed at COP, should influence a downturn in agricultural emissions.

Interim targets and more transparency will keep the strategy on track
Recognising this, one of Green Alliance’s perhaps less glamorous but nevertheless important asks of the Net zero strategy, published in October, was that it should set out interim emissions reduction goals for different sectors. This is so investors know what reductions are expected and each government department is fully aware of its share of the end goal. And, very importantly, it will tell us when things are going wrong.

The strategy did set out slightly hazy emissions pathways for each sector. These are derived from three modelled scenarios with different degrees of electrification, hydrogen use and innovation. As a result, for example, the expectation is that, by 2035, emissions reductions from 1990 levels will be 80-85 per cent for the power sector, 47-62 per cent for heat and buildings and 63-76 per cent for industry.

But we know next to nothing about the assumptions behind many of these figures. This was challenged in a recent FOI but with no result so far.

What we have then is a musical score of sorts, albeit with a lot of room for some in the orchestra to freestyle, which may or may not end in a good result.

A formal goal was set for engineered greenhouse gas removals techniques such as direct air carbon capture and storage as part of the mission to scale them up towards 2050. Separating out these technologies in this way has the advantage of reducing the chance that other sectors will claim them as savings instead of directly targeting their own reductions. This is something we have previously warned against. In fact, in this case, we believe there should be two formal targets: one for reduction (including nature-based options like tree planting) and the other for direct removal technologies.

The flexibility currently afforded to each sector means that, collectively, the different pathways could still, as the CCC believes, lead to the UK missing its sixth carbon budget target. It would be far more reassuring if meeting the budget was the minimum level aimed for, allowing leeway for some failures.

And, while progress against the strategy will be reviewed annually, the initial metrics will be measuring the progress of specific technologies or actions. This is far less challenging than a requirement to track actual emissions reductions achieved.

Sector plans need more ambition
Even where there are more details on the pathways within sectors, there’s only limited reassurance.

For example, Department for Transport’s ‘Jet Zero’ consultation, looking at reducing aviation emissions, sets out the measures expected to result in cuts under several different scenarios. But because of increasing passenger numbers, the department doesn’t expect aviation to see any real reduction in emissions below pre-pandemic levels until at least the early 2030s and potentially 2045. And there are no promises at all to tackle the non-CO2 impacts of aviation, despite estimates that these triple the overall climate footprint of flying. This is unfairly loading responsibility to cut emissions onto other sectors and risks failing to meet carbon budgets overall. It is also missing a huge opportunity to reform aviation taxes and the price of flying to manage demand during the 2020s when science shows us there must be steep emissions cuts.

What would be helpful is more transparency around the assumptions being made in each sector, to allow plans to be scrutinised, and a central scenario for each sector, formalised as a target. These would provide clear expectations against which progress could be tracked.

Different parts of this net zero ‘orchestra’ should know the score, when they are expected to play and how loudly. And the conductor, audience and everyone else able to see when one of the sections are not in their seats ready to play their part.

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