From hot air to hard results – what departments need to do to get UK to net zero
As Mark Rowe explains, delivering on ministerial commitments will be a multi-generation task that requires a cross-government approach
When it comes to the environment and climate change, the UK government’s in-tray looks pretty full. Having signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2016 to enforce binding targets on domestic emissions, government has since thrown a net-zero emissions target, announced this summer, and a 25-year environment plan into the mix. The Cabinet Office is setting up a big unit to manage the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, which is being held in Glasgow.
However domestic politics plays out over the coming months, thanks to the Climate Change Act of 2008, the drive towards cutting emissions is locked in by law. The devil, as so often though, is in the detail. Just how does the machinery of government implement the complex provisions of climate change legislation and ensure meaningful behavioural change among citizens and industry over the medium and long term?
The UK already had a 2050 target to reduce emissions by 80% under the Climate Change Act but this has been replaced by the much tougher goal of achieving “net zero” greenhouse gases by the same date. In doing so, the UK has become the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming. This means emissions from homes, transport, farming and industry will have to be avoided completely or – in the most difficult examples – offset by planting trees or sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.
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One major consequence of these recent developments is that climate change, once the preserve of a single department – the defunct Department of Energy and Climate Change – will now be incorporated into the briefs of numerous government organisations.
Last month, prime minister Borish Johnson announced the creation of a new Cabinet Committee on Climate Change to co-ordinate cross-government environment work. Whether this committee survives the election remains to be seen, but Friends of the Earth have warned that the UK will only become a global leader on tackling climate change if “slashing climate-wrecking emissions” was at the very heart of every government policy.
Mike Thompson, head of carbon budgets at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), adds that “With the introduction of net-zero targets, climate change is even more of a cross-government policy.
“Net zero is just so wide ranging. The Department of Health has not really been involved [in climate change policy] so far, but with a move towards eating less red meat [to reduce methane emissions from livestock] it is now being linked.”
The Department for Education will need to implment policy aimed at training more engineers to meet a range of related targets, such as a requirement to increase the number of heat pumps installed every year in houses from 20,000 to more than one million. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be involved in overlapping measures to improve energy efficiency in property. Meanwhile, offsetting domestic emissions by providing green technology in developing nations will see the ever-greater involvement of the Department for International Development.
This means that government departments of all shades are hearing more of – and having more dealings with – the CCC. Established under the Climate Change Act, the CCC advises the government on emissions targets and reports to parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change. “We are more relevant to the civil service than we have ever been,” Thompson says. “Our role is to make sure government is doing what it says it will do in relation to climate change. There’s going to be an increase in the whole-government approach to climate change.”
In practice, this means that the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and No. 10 will lead on policy implementation even though specialist expertise may lie in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and – depending on the issue – other departments. “Co-ordination is absolutely not easy,” Thompson admits. “In the past, a single department might deal with a single issue but now all these targets have to be dealt with at the same time in terms of delivery and co-ordination.”
Climate change policy has unique sequencing challenges, with an overriding need for the civil service to keep the country on track to meet its long-term targets. After all, it is highly unlikely that anyone in post today will be in the same position when targets that lie 30 years in the future are met. This, thinks Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, is where the road begins to get bumpy. “My impression is that the government is committed to net zero but has not particularly built in a view of how you get there or the necessary governance,” she says. “All the bits have to fit together. There are regulators, private involvement and practical issues – if you are promoting electric vehicles, do you have enough charging points?”
One pitfall is that you can end up with odd signalling, Rutter warns. Defra may promote electric vehicles at the same time as DfT pushes for tax cuts to petrol and diesel. “Everything needs to be co-ordinated by the right department,” she says.
A way around this, Thompson says, is for departments, instead of working to a policy horizon of 12 months, to work to “stepping stones” laid out at five, 10 and 15-year intervals. Success may depend on implementing a handful of major time-related targets, which other policies will have no choice but to follow. The phase-out of fossil-fuelled heating in new UK homes is one such strategic goal; the decision to ban new diesel and petrol vehicles by 2035 is another. The effect of the car ruling is that manufacturers will have to work towards delivering carbon-emission free vehicles. “You design policies that prescribe rather than proscribe,” Thompson says, “and then you start to build that dialogue.”
Yet such action means making decisions where the outcome may not become apparent for several years and the civil service is culturally wary, given that it spends the public’s money, of doing the wrong thing. When it comes to climate change, though, Thompson says a change of mindset is essential. “The fear of doing something wrong can be paralysing but that cannot be a reason for not doing it,” he argues. “If you look at the history [of renewable technology] there are not many times where you can say the problem was that we went too fast. Offshore wind has far exceeded expectations.”
“Co-ordination is absolutely not easy. In the past, a single department might deal with a single issue. Now all these targets have to be co-ordinated and delivered at the same time” Mike Thompson, Committee on Climate Change
Civil servants can take comfort, Thompson suggests, from the fact that climate change action is politically embedded. If elected, a Labour government has pledged a new ‘green deal’. “The Climate Change Act had three votes against it, the net-zero target passed without any opposition,” he says. “There’s real cross-party consensus.”
The civil service also has to balance giving people certainty to invest with the need to be nimble. Pitfalls occur when you are stuck with a too-high tariff, as happened with feed-in tariffs for solar energy. The infamous example of a policy that became outdated was the push for biofuels, which were embraced in the late 1990s as the answer to fossil fuels. However, the policy failed to take on board the environmental impact biofuels would have in south-east Asia, where rainforests were cut down and replaced with palm-oil plantations.
“You have to be able to adjust to technology breakthroughs or price factors. You need to embed proper life-cycle analysis. There are informed voices out there,” says Rutter. “You need good feedback mechanisms, you can’t bet the house on something that you end up being lumbered with.”
Recruitment is also key. Much of the work in renewable energy, of retrofitting power stations and implementing new technology, such as carbon capture and storage, is technical and highly specialist. Then there is the ferociously complicated carbon offsetting known as REDD+, which has the backing of the United Nations, and often impenetrable carbon-pricing markets. “Of course, business will deliver the bulk of the creativity but it has to be government led,” Thompson says.
However, Rutter has concerns that potential recruits may be deterred by the prospect of working within the civil service. “The tone and stance of the current government might make it harder to attract and recruit experts and specialists,” Rutter, who also has some reservations about the depth of knowledge within some departments, says. Thompson is more confident about the existing level of talent. “In my experience, the civil service is full of people of very high quality. My question is whether they are always in the right department and if we are making the best use of their skills. It’s a case of focus – do we have enough people in policy to work on reducing emissions?”
“My impression is that the government is committed to net zero but has not particularly built in a view of how you get there or the necessary governance” Jill Rutter, Institute for Government
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the civil service is the need to comply with the Climate Change Act when at any time the government of the day may make a ruling that appears incompatible with long-term policy aims. This autumn, business secretary Andrea Leadsom approved four new gas-fired turbines at Drax power station, against advice from the Planning Inspectorate (which was guided by net-zero policy), and said that fossil fuel generation was still needed.
More widely, while the government is meeting current climate targets, it has veered away from medium-term goals. This autumn, the energy regulator Ofgem confirmed that the rate of decarbonisation slowed last year, when it was supposed to be accelerating. The CCC’s most recent report found the government is meeting just one of 26 climate change policy commitments.
Thompson is confident that the civil service will successfully implement the policy and behavioural changes in the long term. “It’s the law, it will prevail, whatever happens to the government of the day, implementation is not at the whim of politicians,” he says.
In defence of the government, Thompson says that the 26 policy commitments are “fairly tough”. The singular success has been the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions from energy. “BEIS held the strings for that but when you look across government, other departments have not sufficiently prioritised embedding emissions cuts,” he says.
“Traditionally BEIS has owned this agenda, but we’ve been explicit that the Treasury has to come into this space, some of the experts have to be fiscal. The Cabinet Office has to have a bigger role to ensure that all major decisions are done with a net-zero kilter.”
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