In a number of ways the net zero strategy published by the UK government on Tuesday falls short of what was hoped for, and perhaps even expected by more optimistic observers. The public investment that ministers have committed to is insufficient, their faith in private-sector solutions overblown.
The combination is concerning. As the host of the upcoming Cop26 summit, and the first major industrialised country to put a net zero target into law, the UK is in a unique position. By significantly upping their ambitions with regard to emissions cuts, ministers had the chance to send a powerful message. Instead, they have hedged many of the new commitments in ways which risk undermining them.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the section of the strategy dealing with the heating of homes and other buildings. Heating accounts for almost a third of the UK’s total emissions, and progress on reducing these has long lagged behind other areas. Bold action to end households’ dependence on gas was urgently needed. But instead of clear deadlines, the strategy states only an “ambition” that by 2035 no new gas boilers will be installed. And while grants to enable 90,000 households to install low-carbon heat pumps are likely to be popular, gestures such as this are not enough.
Just last month the government was strongly criticised by the National Audit Office for the shambolic handling of a GBP1.5bn green homes scheme. But the net zero strategy does not make it clear how such mistakes are to be put right. A domestic energy-use policy should contain strict new standards for insulation, as well as mandating the switch from dirty to clean energy. This would have the huge bonus of helping people to reduce bills, at a time when the cost of living is rising and average household incomes are certain to be badly squeezed. Instead, the government has concentrated on a business-friendly package, with the promise of GBP3.9bn funding to help create 240,000 new jobs.
Strong support for the offshore wind sector is one of the strategy’s more positive aspects. This forms part of a wider commitment to decarbonise the electricity supply altogether by 2035, conditional on security of supply. The emphasis on carbon sequestration, both through natural means (peat bogs, trees) and new capture and storage technologies, is welcome. The commitment to build another new nuclear power station, after Hinkley Point C, looks like the least bad answer to the question of how to meet the demand not met by renewables. The further expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure also makes sense, although the government’s broader road policies must be watched closely. While electric cars are a big improvement on internal combustion engines, what is needed is a modal shift away from driving.
Some of the other pledges contained in the document are more fanciful. There is nothing wrong with investing GBP180m in the development of sustainable aviation fuel. But it is irresponsible for the prime minister to encourage people to envision a future of flying “without guilt”, and to be contemptuous about the idea of scaling back consumption. On diet, particularly meat, the strategy says almost nothing, which is disappointing given the constructive approach taken in the recent national food strategy.
The expansion of fossil fuels in the North Sea should be strongly opposed. The policy announced at the Labour party’s recent conference, of investing GBP28bn a year on green measures until 2030, would have taken the UK further, faster. But Boris Johnson’s government has set out its chosen path to net zero, and it falls to its critics and opponents to try to speed things up.