Ministers accused of having ‘no plan’ for net zero, two years after setting target

MPs also warn government lacks clarity on its ambitions for November’s COP26 and question diplomatic resources for pre-conference negotiations
Former business secretary Alok Sharma, who was appointed full-time COP26 president in January Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

08 Mar 2021

Two separate panels of MPs have delivered withering assessments of ministers’ progress in delivering measures to slow climate change – both in the longer term and ahead of Novembers COP26 conference in Glasgow.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said that despite being due to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference in eight months, the government had yet to act on the legally binding target it set in 2019 for the UK to become a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050.

Members of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee also criticised ministers for failing to set “clear measures for success” at COP26 and questioned the level of resourcing being provided to the negotiating team tasked with delivering international agreements at the event.

The PAC accepted that ministers had stated their intention to publish “a plethora of strategies” this year that would set out how emissions in different sectors – ranging from transport to the heating of buildings – would be reduced. But members observed that “at present, there is no coordinated plan".

MPs said departments across government were not yet sufficiently considering the impact on net zero when taking forward projects and programmes. They noted that the Treasury had changed guidance on policy appraisal to ensure departments placed greater emphasis on the environmental impacts, but also had not set out how this will work in practice.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said government had set itself a huge test in committing the UK to a net-zero economy by 2050, but there was “little sign that it understands how to get there” and almost two years later “still has no plan”.

“Our response to climate change must be as joined up and integrated as the ecosystems we are trying to protect,” she said. 

“We must see a clear path plotted, with interim goals set and reached – it will not do to dump our emissions on poorer countries to hit UK targets. Our new international trade deals, the levelling up agenda –  all must fit in the plan to reach net zero.

“COP26 is a few months away; the eyes of the world, its scientists and policymakers are on the UK – big promises full of fine words won’t stand up.”

Darren Jones, who chairs the BEIS select committee, said evidence gathered by his panel suggested the government needed to do more to demonstrate the global leadership that would be required to make COP26 a success.

“COP26 this November must conclude with countries around the world setting out their road maps to delivering on the Paris Agreement targets set five years ago,” he said.

“The British government must put sufficient resource behind these global negotiations to ensure that agreements are reached at COP26 which both commit and help each country to make the required changes.

“We have concluded that the current ‘themes’-based approach to COP26 is too broad, without clear measures for success, and that more focus needs to be given to the overriding necessity to agree deliverable policies that keep global temperature rises to as close to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels as possible.”

A government spokesperson dismissed the PAC’s concerns over progress towards delivering on the net-zero pledge.

“It is nonsense to say the government does not have a plan when we have been leading the world in tackling climate change, cutting emissions by almost 44% since 1990 and doing so faster than any other developed nation in recent years,” they said.

“In the Budget we built on the prime minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution by encouraging private investment in green growth, and we are bringing forward bold proposals to cut emissions and create new jobs and industries across the whole country.”

BEIS committee chair Jones said last week that Sunak’s 2021 Budget contained little to address the nation’s “net-zero transition” and appeared to signal “a rejection by the chancellor of the prime minister’s Ten Point Plan”.

A COP26 spokesperson said November’s event would “define the next decade of tackling climate change”, with a “clear but urgent” call to action for all world leaders.

“They must show how they will reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 with ambitious 2030 targets to get us there. This is critical if we want to keep warming within 1.5 degrees,” the spokesperson said.

"We are making good progress as we build momentum towards COP26 and there is no time to waste. The COP26 president, Alok Sharma, our teams, and the full weight of our diplomatic network are all working tirelessly to push for accelerated action from our partners around the world."

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - Civil service must embrace change or risk losing public trust, Simon Case warns

Share this page
Read next