'Happy Birthday, you haven't aged a day': One year on from the UK's net-zero announcement

It's been one year since the UK's historic net-zero announcement, and the movement is being kept afloat by the corporate sector in a year the has seen policy blindsided by a global pandemic and slowed to a frustrating pace by Brexit.

'Happy Birthday, you haven't aged a day': One year on from the UK's net-zero announcement

The lockdown in the UK is finally easing after 12 weeks and the few people I’ve seen since 23 March are all sporting slightly worse haircuts and this season’s current trend the “lockdown body”. I’m sure they all say the same about me too.

A lot can change in three months it seems, but even more can change in a year. The 12 months that have passed since Theresa May enshrined the net-zero emissions target into law has featured a parade of high-profile and utterly disruptive events, from Brexit to the coronavirus pandemic. But as the net-zero target proves that nothing changes if nothing changes.

On June 11 2019, in one of her last acts as Prime Minister, Theresa May has confirmed that Parliament will create a legally binding net-zero carbon target for 2050.

Net-zero is daunting. It raised the UK’s existing climate commitments from an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 to essentially eliminating the nation's contribution to the climate crises – if your willing to overlook some major accounting discrepancies that is.

If this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the months that followed saw a Brexit deal thrashed out, the prorogation of Parliament, the collapse of the opposition following the General Election and then, of course, the disastrous emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.

From a policy point of view, the net-zero target has been a casualty of this conveyor belt of disruption.

The net-zero target remains just that - a target, an aspiration. Very few steps, let alone a blueprint of a plan, exist to outline an economic transformation to net-zero. The Government has thus far committed to marathon, but is refusing to put in the hard miles.

It’s a frustrating lack of movement as some of the policy tools exist, although some are hidden in Whitehall, to start shaping the net-zero transition.

Net-zero is yet to be aligned to the Government’s existing blueprints, including the 2017 Clean Growth Plan. We’re still awaiting the energy whitepaper, which was set to be published shortly after the net-zero commitment. The National Infrastructure Strategy was meant to be published in March, and with multi-billion-pound commitments to new roads and the ongoing court cases surrounding the Heathrow Airport expansion, the Strategy could well be the keyhole from which we can spy how joined-up the Government’s approach to net-zero is.

One year on from the net-zero target; nothing changes if nothing changes.

Forced change is coming

It is disingenuous to lay this lack of movement solely at the Government’s feet. Both Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have huge economic implications for the UK, which shrunk by a record 20% last month. It is understandable that this is a higher priority in the short-term – not to mention limiting the deaths from the pandemic.

The drumbeat of the “green recovery” movement, however, serves as a reminder that combatting the climate emergency can go hand-in-hand with economic prosperity. If the UK Government has been treading water in the year since setting the net-zero target, then the next 12 to 18 months will be sink or swim for Government’s claims that it is a “world leader” on climate action.

First and foremost, there is the need for a concrete acknowledgement of the green recovery through actions rather than rhetoric.

The 2008-09 financial crisis was built on stimulus packages that led to global emissions rebounding after an initial fall. The Government is under pressure to ensure that the UK’s reflation packages don’t repeat these mistakes.

The CCC’s chief executive Chris Stark is one of many who believes the Government should prioritise a green and resilient economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic that doesn't lock in fossil fuels.

In fact, the CCC’s annual progress report to Parliament later this month will feature rebuilding efforts for the economy and production in a way that supports a “just” transition towards net-zero emissions. The CCC has also confirmed that its advice on the Sixth Carbon Budget, which covers the reduction levels required for the period of 2033-2027 will now be published in December 2020, rather than September.

The silver lining here is that it gives the Government almost a year to reflect on ahead of the postponed COP26 climate summit that it is hosting. The conference will run from 1-12 November 2021 following its postponement in 2020 as a result of safety concerns because of Covid-19.

Delaying a global climate conference will always be disappointing even if necessary, but there’s cause for optimism. Depending on the results of the Presidency Elections, the US could be back at the climate table, and it’s likely that the percentage of global GDP that is covered by a net-zero ambition in some form will have increased from current levels of 53%.

Hard yards ahead

This optimism will fall flat if the UK is unable to show it has its own house in order and has a stringent plan to reach net-zero that encourages and implores other nations to follow. The building blocks are emerging too.

Power sector emissions continue to decline with transport now the biggest source of UK emissions. Plans of the more-concrete variety are in place to reduce emissions in this sector through the ban on new sales of diesel and petrol vehicles. Innovation in the form of hydrogen production and gigafactories are also emerging across the UK at a pace.

The UK’s net-zero target has also acted as a beacon for the private sector. Amidst the seismic economic waves caused by both Brexit and Covid-19, the net-zero target is the lighthouse that draws the corporate sector towards a low-carbon economy.

It is no coincidence that hundreds of businesses have revamped existing sustainability strategies to commit to net-zero ahead of the Government’s 2050 deadline. It is also the main driver for the reason that Google searches for “net-zero” have skyrocketed in the 12 months since the UK’s historic announcement. With many existing corporate climate commitments expiring this year, the next 12 months will be bombarded with fresh net-zero and science-based commitments from corporates.

The UN Environment Programme estimates that annual cuts in emissions of 7.6% will be required each year this decade to put us on the trajectory for the Paris Agreement. In contrast, the IEA estimates that the coronavirus pandemic will cut emissions by 8% in 2020 alone. But a global pandemic doesn't really show us that net-zero is possible, as it has led to forced, unavoidable change. What is required is a collective will of action.

The Government’s net-zero announcement was the starting gun for a race where it is yet to get out of the blocks. The next 12 months will see if UK policy is overtaken by other nations and the private sector that are willing to create said collective will of action. However, the opportunity is still there for the UK to be the instigator of the net-zero movement. 

Matt Mace

Topics: Green policy
Tags: Brexit | carbon budget | cop26 | coronavirus | green economy | green recovery | low-carbon | net-zero | The Paris Agreement | Green Policy
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