The treasure trove of documents released by the UK government on 30 March 2023, covering everything from a new consultation on the zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate to a shortlist for eight carbon capture and storage projects, offered us new insights into the government’s climate plans.
At Green Alliance, we’ve spent the time since carefully going through the 2,800 pages, in particular the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP), to update our Net zero policy tracker, which assesses the government’s climate policy progress. The greater transparency of the government’s new announcements was a very good thing and meant that we could update our tracker with more confidence but, unfortunately, the more comprehensive picture we now have is not a good one.
Ahead of the March policy splurge, we issued an assessment of progress, showing that there was only confirmed government policy in place to address 28 per cent of the emissions cuts necessary to meet the government’s own climate targets during 2028-32 (the fifth carbon budget). There was no policy at all to cover 13 per cent of the cuts needed, and the rest (59 per cent) was either policy under consultation or just stated ambition but with no firm policy yet. Due to the nature of the successful court case that forced the release of the documents, we expected the government to raise its overall ambition significantly on 30 March.
But, as you can see below, far from moving things on, our updated assessment suggests overall UK action on climate has in fact fallen by two per cent. While more of the policy that was under consultation is now confirmed, taking it up to 35 per cent according to our analysis, 15 per cent of the emissions cuts needed now have no policy at all to address them. Despite the flurry of activity and pronouncements in March, this suggests that UK climate ambitions are stagnant, if not going backwards.
Government progress against net zero target, before and after 30 March 2023, based on emissions savings required 2028-32
These overall figures hide some intricacies worth spelling out.
Ghost policies aren’t credible
While scrutinising the CBDP to update the tracker, it became clear to us that many policies the government is counting towards its progress are at such early stage of development or lack corresponding official statements that they cannot be deemed credible. These include proposals to increase vehicle fleet turnover and industrial resource efficiency. While these potential future policies, that we are calling ‘ghost policies’, are being counted by government, we have largely discounted them in our tracker. This contributes towards the reduction in ambition. As a result, we judge the government’s climate plans to be 34 million tonnes of CO2e worse off (equivalent to four per cent of the emissions savings required) compared to what the government estimates it will achieve during 2028-32. Although we give credit for ‘policy ambition’ in our tracker, this must be matched with relevant targets or official announcements to be counted. Proposals like these must become clearer ambition as soon as possible to show that the government is committed.
New assumptions affect targets
New assumptions made by the government on future emissions meant that we also had to revise down the overall emissions savings target, as shown in our graph. In the CBDP, the government updated its projections of future emissions that would have occurred without new policy. For example, in the industry and agriculture and land use sectors, projections were revised down due to changes in the assumptions of future oil refinery and peatland emissions, respectively. As a result, the targets for these sectors fell correspondingly. These changes do not reflect government policy changes, but they do give a more thorough understanding of what action is needed where, and highlight how sensitive the results are to changes in underlying assumptions.
Big risks particularly around transport
Transport is now the worst performing sector and at high risk of under delivering. Our updated tracker shows over half of the emissions savings required with no policy across the whole economy are in this sector. Most of this shortfall comes from surface transport. The new zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate consultation shows that the UK government no longer has any ambition to increase the fuel efficiency of petrol or diesel vehicles. There is also no target for people to drive less, something that Scotland and Wales are both aiming for. Aviation and shipping should not be let off the hook either. We are concerned about the lack of short term ambition in the government’s Jet Zero Strategy for aviation and how reliant it is on unproven tech, while at the same time it assumes that demand for flying will rise.
Delivery risk should be hedged against
While the announcements on 30 March 2023 mean the government’s plans are more visible, the greater clarity raises many more questions than it answers about the pace of progress. Our tracker shows that the government is not going to meet its own targets on current plans. Even meeting these targets in principle might not be sufficient, given some of the risks around the ambitions in areas like aviation. The government’s plans rely on some policies that have a high chance of not being delivered. To address this, we need to introduce more dependable policies with lower delivery risk such as ambitious targets for rolling out heat pumps, reducing car miles driven and cutting resource use. Alongside this, the government should firm up areas under consultation, such as the ZEV mandate. We can’t afford to be complacent about these gaps and uncertainties. The risks are too high and the consequences too dire to contemplate for the UK and the world. Given the uncertainties involved, the government should be aiming to over deliver on its legal targets and hold each government department accountable against their respective sectoral targets. This isn’t just playing with numbers. If the government doesn’t do more, the ability to reach net zero by 2050 and for the UK to play its full part in averting global climate breakdown is seriously in doubt.