Government won't meet net-zero emissions without 'massive change', warns Defra chief scientist

Sir Ian Boyd gives warning days before his departure as Defra chief scientist

Photo: Defra

The government will only be able to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in the next 30 years if it is willing to fundamentally change the way it operates and its policy priorities, one of its most senior scientists has said

Sir Ian Boyd, who stands down as chief scientific adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this month, said reaching zero emissions was a “fantastic goal” but warned that “we will not get to it while government is constructed the way it is at the moment”.

Former prime minister Theresa May set the legal target to hit zero emissions by 2050 in June, saying the move was “not only the right thing to tackle the climate emergency for future generations but a huge opportunity to increase our energy efficiency, improve our resilience and deliver a greener, healthier society”.


Speaking to CSW ahead of his twice-delayed departure, Boyd, a polar and marine scientist, said the May’s speech marked a “massive transition” for the government.

Boyd said that despite a “period of expansion” of political interest in climate change in the 2000s, including the passing of the Climate Change Act in 2008, the issue had become “deeply, deeply politically unpopular” by the time he arrived at Defra in 2012.

“It showed that in a relatively short period, the political wind can change,” he said.

“The important thing is that it doesn’t change again. We need to keep it going in this direction.”

Boyd, who penned a major 2017 report on waste and resource productivity with former government chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport, said there were two main obstacles to hitting the target.

“The first warning I would give is that is that the environmental challenges are not just about emissions. It's actually about resource consumption,” he said.

“Emissions are a symptom of rampant resource consumption. If we do not get resource consumption under control, we will not get emissions under control. That is absolutely clear.”

The government must therefore put policies in place to address consumer demand and support a shift in people’s behaviour and way of life to encourage them to consume less, Boyd said.

But that alone will not be enough to assure the government meets its goal, he said.

“We should not be complacent about the challenge that sits in the net-zero objective. That challenge is massive.

“It requires massive change in government attitudes and policy in order to be able to make sure that is implemented – and at the moment I’m not sure they’re being fully scoped,” he said.

Asked how government should go about implementing that shift, Boyd said the “biggest single change” that was needed was a cultural one. “The problem is the way the government is currently structured and the way it functions, and the kind of cultural attitudes you see in government, are not aligned with [the net-zero] objective and that needs to change.”

He said there needed to be a move away from “optimising government to essentially maximise economic growth, to optimise government around other objectives, which are more about health and welfare”.

“Those health and welfare objectives are very much aligned with the net-zero target,” said Boyd, whose work in Defra included contributing to the cross-Whitehall clean air strategy that was published in January.

Boyd’s warning comes after parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee warned that the target would be “undeliverable” unless the government takes urgent steps to reduce vehicle emissions and increase support for clean energy projects.

In a report last week, committee members said the UK faced “dire consequences” after they found delays and cuts had slowed the rollout of clean growth technologies.

Last month, the independent Committee on Climate Change, which advises government, called for a net-zero emissions policy across all departments, as well as better coordination of cross-departmental anti-climate change measures.

The committee said the government needed to demonstrate it was “serious” about its commitment, having already warned in an earlier report that stalling efforts to cut emissions meant the UK was “on track” to miss its legally-binding targets.

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