Net zero's hard yards are ahead

As Cop26 fades into the distance, ministers still have a mountain to climb to deliver their climate ambitions
Photo: daniel0685/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Jill Rutter

09 Feb 2022

Cop26 in Glasgow seems a long time ago. It happened before there was Omicron, before rows about whether or not to move to “Plan B”, before the political class got consumed in the never-ending saga of bring-your-own-booze work events.

In the run up to the Cop, the government finally published its comprehensive net-zero strategy.  Alongside it we had the long-awaited heat and building strategy, and the final report from the Treasury’s net-zero review. That gave the government a strong platform in the Cop from which to point not just at ambitious targets, but also better-developed plans on how to meet them than most of the other attendees. 

Glasgow itself delivered some useful wins – even if there was clear frustration that it did not quite go the distance that Cop president Alok Sharma and the UK team hoped.  Still, the decision to ask nations to revisit their nationally determined contributions not in five years time, but next year in advance of Cop27 at Sharm-el-Sheikh allowed him to claim that the ambition of keeping global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees or less was still alive, albeit “on life support” or with a weak pulse. Turning Glasgow words into actions will be a big task for Sharma in 2022. 

But while 2021 and the run-up to the Cop saw a flurry on domestic net zero activity, there is a danger that the momentum that built up dissipates. And potentially more threatening to the government’s long-run strategy on net zero is the emergence of political opposition on its own backbenches.  

That could become toxic for the government if it cannot manage the current energy cost crisis and make clear how whatever measures it takes now to help households fit with its long-term strategy.  So as civil servants help ministers develop a package of support in the short term, they also need to set out clearly how this fits with the longer term destination of energy policy in a net zero economy. 

That may mean using the current crisis to ramp up measures to boost energy efficiency and cut bills and to show how net zero in the longer run puts the UK less at the mercy of volatile gas prices.  If they cannot get over the hurdle of this April, when the energy price cap rises, their 2050 ambitions may go up in smoke. 

But those working across government on net zero also need to build on the strategies published pre-Cop.  In the Institute for Government’s Net Zero: Agenda 2022 report, we set out six further steps the government needs to take.

The first is to recognise that there were gaps in the strategies developed and those need to be filled in. The biggest omission was the lack of a strategy for reducing emissions from agriculture and land use: indeed agriculture and land use finds itself at the intersection of multiple government ambitions but without a clear vision from government for the future.  

There are other gaps too – the government needs to provide more detail on emissions trajectories so that the Climate Change Committee and parliament can properly hold it to account for progress. Vague ambitions need to be turned into concrete plans with dates and timelines – and clarity about what government will do itself and how it will work with or support business and local government to deliver the rest. 

Meanwhile ministers need to explain how they plan to embed net zero across government. A net zero test has been promised for spending. But that needs to extend across other policies. The Treasury needs to look at the tax system, produce a net zero tax strategy and commit to assessing budgets against the net zero goal. And government needs to show how it is using its independent trade policy to promote its climate change goals. 

To support this we need some machinery of government changes. In 2020 we argued for a beefed up net zero unit at the centre of government.  Now we have a mix of the Cop26 team and part of the Cabinet Office secretariats supporting Alok Sharma, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy still leading on net zero and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on adaptation, while No.10’s Delivery Unit chases progress on net zero as one of the PM’s priorities. 

Over time, the central units need to morph into a single powerful net zero unit and help the prime minister ensure outstanding policy differences are resolved and plans are delivered. After a decade with little progress on adaptation, that too needs to come to the centre – either to the Cabinet Office or the Treasury (since it is the ultimate spend-to-save policy).

Net zero is for life, not just for Glasgow.  And policy makers across government need to recognise that. 

Jill Rutter is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government

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