Back in 2021, during COP26, the UK government positioned itself as a global leader of climate ambition. Since, it has become clear that was the easy part, what is tricky is delivering action that matches the warm words.
The government began to feel the heat last July, not least because record temperatures of 40°C were reached, but also because its net zero strategy which sets out plans to decarbonise the economy, was ruled inadequate and in breach of the Climate Change Act by the High Court.
The Climate Change Act obliges the government to produce detailed plans demonstrating how it will meet its legally binding carbon budgets. The court identified that the government had failed to include the level of detail needed to allow both parliament and the public to scrutinise the adequacy of its plans. The ruling proved what many in the environment sector already suspected, that not all the data was present, sounding alarm bells about government transparency.
The High Court ordered the government to update its strategy by 31 March 2023 with a full quantification of how its carbon budgets will be met.
We’re judging the government against its own commitments
The new edition of Green Alliance’s Net zero policy tracker analyses the government’s progress to meet its own climate targets, using the data the government has made publicly available. What it reveals is that the UK is offtrack.
Our policy tracker assesses government progress at achieving the required emission reductions (over 900MtCO2e) for the fifth carbon budget period (2028-32) to keep on track with the net zero strategy. We have analysed each policy announced over this parliament so far, along with the associated emissions savings, and have categorised each policy according to whether it is simply an ambition, under consultation or fully confirmed, to reflect the degree of certainty. We’ve looked at each sector of the economy to assess progress on power, industry, heat and buildings, transport, agriculture and land use, waste and fluorinated gases and engineered greenhouse gas removals .
Across all sectors combined, the government only has policy frameworks in place to cut 28 per cent of emissions. Nearly two thirds of the emissions reduction targets are covered by policies which are either currently under consultation or simply a stated ambition, without any mechanisms to deliver them. And, most importantly, there is no policy to address the remaining 13 per cent of emissions reduction needed. This policy gap is most notable for the transport, industry and agriculture and land use sectors, meaning the relevant government departments – the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport – need to focus on their transparency in the expected strategy update to avoid another judicial review.
What should the UK do now?
First, the government should commit to report annually on whether the sectoral pathways remain appropriate and identify whether the emission savings required should be adjusted, where it is falling behind and weaknesses in the plans.
As 36 per cent of the emission cuts required to stay on track during the fifth carbon budget period are currently only under consultation and not confirmed, the government should accelerate action and confirm policy to deliver them in time.
Finally, it should explore the opportunities across all sectors to cut emissions through behaviour change, more efficient use of resources and greater circularity.
Some sectors have to catch up
Not all sectors are equal when it comes to climate action. Our tracker shows that agriculture and land use is the worst performing sector, with no action planned to tackle half the required emission cuts from the sector. Only nine per cent of the cuts needed are covered by existing policy. Defra needs to set out a land use framework that shows how its new Environmental Land Management scheme will get this sector to net zero by 2050 as well as end nature declines by 2030.
Transport also has a long way to go. The zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate is due to be rolled out in January 2024 but is still under consultation. This will be the policy responsible for the largest proportion of emissions reductions sought across the whole economy, so it must be prioritised and not subject to delay.
In theory, most of the emission savings needed from the power sector are covered by confirmed policy but, in practice, there will have to be more focus on ensuring successful delivery of policies like contracts for difference for renewables. There’s a lack of a detailed clean power plan to outline how exactly the government will reach promised power sector decarbonisation by 2035. This is a priority, because decarbonising the electricity grid and ramping up renewables capacity are fundamental to enabling other sectors to meet their climate policy ambitions.
To avoid a further run in with the courts, the government must publish its assessment by the end of March, informing parliament and the public about how it intends to meet its legal carbon reduction targets. It is also said to be planning a Green Day before the end of March, when a raft of environmental policies will be announced as the UK’s response to the Inflation Reduction Act. It really will be a green day when the UK can say it is on track and doing all it can to reduce the devastating effects of climate change in the UK and the rest of the world.