Department for Energy Security and Net Zero permanent secretary Jeremy Pocklington has rejected MPs’ suggestion that a “siloed” approach persists in the government’s approach to delivering its ambitious emissions-cutting objectives.
Pocklington insisted that there is “probably more join-up” on delivering the government’s commitment to make the UK a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 “than in any other issue in government”. However, he admitted that there are areas where further progress is required.
The perm sec’s comments came at a Public Accounts Committee session yesterday. Pocklington and his Department for Science, Innovation and Technology counterpart Sarah Munby answered questions about a recent National Audit Office report on the government’s support for innovation to deliver net zero.
According to the report, some £4.2bn is earmarked for “net-zero research and innovation” over the current Spending Review period, which runs until 2025, with a view to delivering advances that the private sector would not produce on its own.
The government’s 2021 Net Zero Research and Innovation Framework, published in 2021, identifies seven core sectors for work. They are: power; industry and low-carbon hydrogen supply; carbon capture and storage and greenhouse-gas removals; heat and buildings; transport; natural resources, waste and fluorinated gases; and “whole-systems approach”, which entails at issues such as enabling integrated multi-modal transport systems and unlocking new financial models.
The NAO identified 115 government programmes providing funding for net-zero research and innovation, sponsored across eight public bodies.
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said the fact that individual departments are in charge of risk assessing their net-zero innovation projects – and ultimately deciding whether they proceed – indicates there is “still a siloing”.
Pocklington said DESNZ is the “clear” lead on delivering net zero and insisted that government is taking a joined-up approach to the 2050 target, which was made legally binding by Theresa May in one of her last acts as prime minister in 2019.
“This is like any cross-cutting issue. It is a particularly important one,” he said. “We do have a clear department in the lead and it has clear governance and oversight to drive progress.
“I don’t think we’re at the finished article yet, but the governance includes the Net Zero Innovation Board, it includes the cabinet committee, it includes the Net Zero Delivery Board, which is tracking progress, holding other departments to account.
“I don’t want the committee to have the impression that we’re all sat in our individual silos, not working together, because that’s absolutely not how government works on this issue. There is probably more join-up on this issue than in almost any other issue in government, given the importance and the time-criticality of the mission.”
Pocklington acknowledged there are areas for improvement in the government’s approach, however. He pointed specifically to the commercial realisation of proven and viable technologies, or “pull-through”.
“We do think we need to continue to improve pull-through,” he said. The perm sec said he had given MPs a “concrete example” of the government’s work in relation to the HyNet low-carbon hydrogen project, which was first funded in 2015 and is now approaching “first-of-a-kind” deployment.
“I think it would be sensible for us to go further, with each of the seven sectors in the report having a clearer lead, helping make sure there is practical value-adding join-up from research/innovation through to demonstration, project and commercialisation as well,” he said. “All within this over-arching governance.”
Pocklington told MPs that delivering on the net-zero 2050 commitments is “inevitably” going to be a whole-of-government effort, and that the UK is in a world-leading position.
“We’re advised on this work by the Net Zero Advisory Board, deliberately chaired by the government chief scientific adviser, to ensure it becomes a whole of government effort,” he said.
“There is not another country in the world that we’re aware of that has as developed a research and innovation framework around net zero in this way that is based on needs, anchored in science, has a clear funding programme against it, clear oversight and monitoring and evaluation around it and review,” he said.
“It is based on the ecosystem that we have in this country around science, research and innovation.”
PAC deputy chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked Pocklinton about the “increasingly competitive” international market for scale-up finance facing firms with viable projects. He cited the effects of US and European Union programmes designed to boost energy innovation and questioned whether the UK has its investment balance right.
Pocklington said the government is looking to identify and tackle barriers to commercialisation as projects go beyond the research-and-innovation stage.
“The race to net zero is accelerating and in the long run that is a good thing, that there is more investment in other countries,” he said. “What we need to do is to capture as much of the benefit appropriately for the UK.”