On the morning after the general election, the prime minister promised “to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth, with the most far-reaching environmental programme”. He added: “You voted to be carbon-neutral by 2050. And we’ll do it.”
Strong words, framing the new parliamentary term as an era of reform. As the UK gears up to host the next UN climate summit in November, the year ahead is an acid test of the new government’s climate credibility.
Let’s review where we stand. Last year saw a remarkable spike in public awareness of climate change. School strikes, public protests, front page climate news. Politics changed too, with a new “net zero” goal, set by parliament on the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, and momentum across government to put actions in place to meet it. The election interrupted that much-needed strategic policy shift. Nothing can be taken for granted: a glance at the disappointing outcome of the recent Madrid climate summit is a reminder of how difficult progress continues to be in the global effort to address climate change.
To regain momentum, the election result must act as a solid basis for the next decade of action. The government’s strong majority in parliament can help to drive ambitious reforms. What will distinguish the next decade from the last, however, is the need for a truly cross-government effort. In the last decade, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy led on the phasing out of coal-fired power – an extraordinary story that is nearly complete. What lies ahead cannot be delivered by any single department. The policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, transport, industry and agriculture must be owned across government. And cutting through these: the critical questions of better public engagement, skills provision, infrastructure and finance. It is a governance and coordination challenge like no other.
Rumours have circulated, following the election, of a new climate department in Whitehall. Perhaps even the recreation of DECC. Change is welcome if it brings new urgency for the task. But rearranging responsibilities is no substitute for the development of coherent plans to cut UK emissions and reduce the risks of climate impacts. That is the mission that now faces government and the civil service. It will succeed with strong leadership – and if achieving net-zero emissions becomes a clarion call for bold, imaginative approaches. There has never been a more important moment to make it happen.