By Mark Rowe

09 Aug 2021

The UK government has some world-leading pledges on carbon reduction ahead of Cop26. But have the policies to meet them followed?

Winter is an unlikely time to have your day in the sun but this November Glasgow, with its shortened daylight hours, will see the UK host a key United Nations environment conference.

Known as Cop26 (the acronym refers to “Conference of the Parties”), the meeting of the world’s environment ministers and many heads of state has been rolled over by a year because of Covid-19.

The gathering is widely regarded as the most important of its kind since the Paris Accord of 2015 because it is scheduled to provide a “school report” on the extent to which the nations of the world have stuck to the pledges they made six years ago and put in place a further combination of carrots and sticks.

As well as hosting the event, the UK has made some admirable declarations of intent itself, with the Climate Change Act of 2008 locking emissions reductions into law. In April 2021, the UK government set what it declared to be the world’s most ambitious climate change target into law to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. Other eye-catching targets include an announcement earlier this year that by 2025 all new homes will be banned from installing gas and oil boilers and will instead be heated by low-carbon alternatives; and that new cars and vans powered wholly by petrol and diesel will not be sold in the UK from 2030 (though hybrids will be permitted).

Some elements of the plan to get there have also been released. The government launched an industrial decarbonisation strategy in March, covering metals and minerals, chemicals, food and drink, paper and pulp, ceramics, glass and oil refineries, as well as the hardest sectors to decarbonise: steel manufacturing and cement production. 

However, more is expected soon. A net-zero strategy, with development being led by the Treasury, is expected to be published shortly to show how the government plans to incentivise change and pay for the policies, and more sector-specific work will then follow.

As ever, it will be the civil service that ensures that domestic intentions become reality and that Cop26 actually achieves meaningful change. To this end, the conference has been assigned its own discrete team of civil servants, drawn from across government.

“There is a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes to create the right forum to facilitate these crucial international agreements,” says Ros Eales, chief operating officer of the Cop26 unit. “Without our dedicated team of over 160 civil servants, who bring expertise from across Whitehall and beyond, none of this would be possible. Cop26 wouldn’t happen without the UK civil service.”

The nature of the Cop26 team reflects the cross-departmental approach required to tackle climate change, Eales says. “This demands a whole government response, so it’s natural we have staff from across the whole civil service – climate experts, diplomats, comms specialists, event management expertise, people from an industry background and security experts.” Tasks include liaising with peers in other governments, sitting at the negotiating table in UN subsidiary body climate change talks, briefing Alok Sharma (the Cop26 president, left) for key bilateral meetings, and engaging with stakeholder groups from civil society and business. “There is a huge amount of work powering the diplomacy that underpins our Cop presidency,” Eales says.

Due to Covid-19, novel approaches have been implemented. “Teams have been really innovative in the way that they’ve applied digital solutions to keep our priorities alive throughout the pandemic,” Eales says. The civil service has enabled the Cop26 president to participate in 80 virtual ministerial conversations with more than 60 countries and international organisations.

“We’ve also had Cop26 champions doing virtual visits to other countries, and even hosted international ministerial meetings over video conference,” Eales adds.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, believes that the event should be used as a springboard for greater impetus across government and not be seen as an end point. “Cop26 is a moment in time, a team has been assembled specifically for Cop26 and it will have drawn on a wide range of civil service talent,” she says.

“At the end of it, what happens? They get scattered to the four winds and the individuals use it as a means to get promotion elsewhere within the civil service.”

Instead, there’s a clear opportunity to use the Cop26 team as cheerleaders and to oversee the long-term implementation of climate change legislation, says Hillier. “Those individuals will have made incredible contacts over the months running up to Cop26, they are framing the debate for Glasgow, they will be personally proud of what they’ve done. It makes sense to keep them together.”

Beyond Cop26, civil servants are having to finesse the nitty-gritty of domestic policy in the real world. Hillier cites the electric vehicle deadline as an example. “It’s laudable in theory but what does that mean for people who live in flats? Where do they go to charge a car?” In such circumstances, Hillier believes the civil service needs to work closely with local authorities, identify a council that has anticipated the issue, and see how a solution might be scaled up by piloting extensions around the country.

The challenges and the targets have been spelled out, yet when it comes to implementing mitigation measures, the signs are not universally encouraging.

“Without our dedicated team of over 160 civil servants, none of this would be possible. Cop26 wouldn’t happen without the UK civil service”

In June, the Committee on Climate Change produced its 2021 progress report to parliament, which highlighted the government’s “historic climate promises in the past year, for which it deserves credit”.

However, it warned that the government has so far been too slow to follow these promises with delivery. “This defining year for the UK’s climate credentials has been marred by uncertainty and delay to a host of new climate strategies. Those that have emerged have too often missed the mark. With every month of inaction, it is harder for the UK to get on track.”

It flagged that the government is “taking a high-stakes gamble to focus everything on a new net-zero strategy in the autumn” to achieve the necessary policy progress and public buy-in.

“It is absolutely critical that the new strategy is published before the Cop26 climate summit, with clear policy plans, backed fully by the Treasury,” the committee said in a statement. “It must be accompanied by a commitment to prepare the country for the serious climate risks facing the UK, as the next cycle of adaptation planning begins.”

The report also outlined the wide-ranging demands for the civil service that will involve “big cross-cutting challenges of public engagement, fair funding and local delivery.”

Earlier this year, Hillier too concluded the government had set itself a huge test in committing the UK to a net-zero economy by 2050, but given “little sign that it understands how to get there” and almost two years after pledging greater detail “still has no plan”.

A second CCC report, its independent assessment of UK climate risk, echoed PAC’s concerns by noting: “Alarmingly, this new evidence shows that the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened. Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk.” All 10 of the warmest years in the UK’s temperature record have taken place since 2002, while rainfall over Scotland is up 10% from the start of the 20th century. Despite this, the CCC report pointed out that, since its previous assessment five years ago, more than 570,000 new homes have been built that are not resilient to future high temperatures and since 2018 over 4,000 heat-related deaths have been recorded in England.

Duncan Brack, a former climate change adviser to Chris Huhne in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government, said the civil service will find it difficult to marry what appear to be contradictory demands. “There are glaring inconsistencies in the government’s approach to climate change,” he says.

“The net-zero commitment is excellent, but if the commitment was really mainstreamed throughout government, they would not have scrapped the Green Homes Grant scheme without putting anything in its place, or gone ahead with the new Woodhouse Colliery coalmine in Cumbria, or granted new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. All these ask different things of different government departments.”

Moves towards a greener economy requires cross-government cooperation to iron out such contradictions, Hillier says. “The intention to replace petrol cars with electric is good but it will mean phasing out fuel duty, which is a huge earner for the government,” she says. “Is the Treasury having conversations with Defra and the Department for Transport about that – what are the implications and alternatives for revenue? I see hard-pressed civil servants being pulled in different directions.”

The challenge is also recognised by the CCC. “Siloed thinking remains a problem for addressing climate change risks or opportunities where responsibility for adaptation falls across more than one government department,” a committee spokesperson says. “A single hazard, such as a flood, will often have knock-on impacts across a range of sectors, amplifying the resulting risk or leading to cascading impacts. Cross-departmental working is critical to ensuring the government can achieve its aims in the face of climate change.”

Policies and plans related to health, sustainable businesses and social stability need to consider a large number of risks across different sectors and different government departments, the CCC suggests. “It’s important to understand that many of the risks are not exclusively owned by the departments that will be directly affected, such as the risks to health from overheating in homes, where health departments own the impact – mortality and morbidity – but planning and business departments own the policy response that involves building regulations and planning,” the spokesperson adds.

This is all the more urgent, the CCC points out in its independent assessment, as it identified eight top priorities that should be addressed in the next two years at the highest levels of government – including flooding, drought, damage to crops, soil health and risks to homes – and jointly across departments and between UK government and the devolved administrations. This would mean, suggests the CCC, that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would work closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on issues such as the latter’s SME Climate Hub but also with the Department for International Trade’s Business of Resilience campaign.

“A team has been assembled for Cop26 and it will have drawn on a wide range of talent. At the end of it, what happens?”

Brack wonders whether the civil service requires two strong voices, one from within its ranks and another at the political level, in order to reassure officials that one part of government will not undermine the work of another. “Nick Clegg provided that strong voice but since 2015 there’s been no equivalent, so while many (though not all) ministers at BEIS, Defra and [the former ministries of] the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for International Development have been pretty good on green priorities, there’s still no strong push at the centre.”

Such a figure would encourage the civil service to be bold in policy implementation, which can go against an instinctive and innate wariness of squandering public money. Hillier says measuring outcomes is crucial but a degree of boldness is required. She draws parallels with Covid-19 vaccine procurement. “There was risk with that but by using real experts you reduce it so that you have a reasonable balance of success,” she says. The CCC spokesperson says the response to Covid has been encouraging in this regard. “The pandemic has provided insights into globally complex and cascading risks, and tested how risk planning operates across departments and government.”

Hillier wonders if the CCC may be able to play a long-term role but whether it will also require cross-party support and a political leader who rises above party issues. Such figures, envisaged by Brack, could also provide the long-term oversight required to ensure that institutional memory is retained and that deadlines 20 years away are stuck to even when individuals move on. Select committees may also have a role, she suggests, as long-term members of parliament tend to develop specialisms and particular interests.

Hillier says government should consider whether Defra and the Cabinet Office, the departments tasked with coordinating climate change policy, need a second permanent secretary dedicated to the job. She has even heard informal talk of establishing a delivery unit for climate change legislation, which she points out would take the civil service back to the Blair/Brown era. At that point, civil servants, who see politicians of all party colours come and go, may then truly believe there is nothing new under the sun – even if the sun only makes a fleeting appearance in Glasgow this November.

Read the most recent articles written by Mark Rowe - From hot air to hard results – what departments need to do to get UK to net zero

Share this page
Read next