CCC: UK’s net-zero transition could be easier than first thought

Clockwise from bottom-left: CCC deputy chair Baronness Brown; chair Lord Deben and director of analysis Mike Thompson

 The thought leaders expressed their sentiments during a BEIS Committee inquiry session on Thursday (2 July), conducted as part of the Committee’s probe into the UK’s net-zero transition.

During the session, Wealden MP Nusrat Ghani expressed concern that the UK’s 2050 net-zero target is now “unachievable” because of the impact which Covid-19 has had on policymaking, supply chains and investment in low-carbon sectors.  

The CCC’s director of analysis Mike Thompson reassured her by revealing that the Committee will be releasing updated research on pathways to net-zero in December, considering the “full extent” of Covid-19-related impacts. The sixth carbon budget is also due in the latter half of this year.

“We’ve not seen anything in our net data to suggest that we can’t get to net-zero; if anything, it will be slightly easier than we thought before,” Thompson said. “The more we look at this, the more confident we are that 2050 is absolutely achievable as a date, in various different ways.”

CCC deputy chair Baroness Brown also offered her assurances, noting that the pandemic response “shows how rapidly we can change our behaviours and societal norms”.

“We’ve always been hugely cautious in assuming behavioural change in our reports, as it is something we feel there is uncertainty around,” Brown said. “But we’ve seen some developments that might encourage us to believe behavioural changes that will actually enable us to achieve things more cheaply are something we should be more ambitious about in future.”

Recent research from Futerra found that 80% of citizens in the UK and US would make lifestyle changes as big as those they had undertaken to halt the spread of coronavirus, in order to mitigate climate change. Similarly, a survey of the UK Climate Assembly’s members found that 93% want support to continue low-carbon behaviours post-lockdown.  

The conversation then turned to CCC chair Lord Deben, who said he would not be afraid to speak out if he believed 2050 was no longer the appropriate deadline for net-zero.

Deben also praised BEIS for “turning back the mistakes it had made before” on onshore wind and solar, and for ultimately helping the domestic power generation sector reduce its annual emissions by 67% since 2008. Recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, he added, is perhaps the nation’s last chance to drive similar changes in other sectors in line with 1.5C.

“Covid-19 has to be a springboard to do the things that we haven’t done last year,” he said.

“You couldn’t just excuse a year in which little had been done that had been hoped for, because of Covid-19… without raising people’s hopes, we do think that, in a number of areas, it is possible that we can do things quicker than we had thought.”

Cabinet committee concerns

Deben was not thoroughly optimistic, however, and joked that he is known for “never being satisfied”.

He re-raised several of the issues highlighted in the CCC’s most recent progress report to Parliament, published last week, ranging from energy efficiency in homes to a more ambitious framework for phasing out new petrol and diesel car sales.

Deben additionally revealed that Boris Johnson’s new cabinet committee on climate change has only met once since its inception late last year, largely due to red tape around the general election and the impacts of Covid-19 on policymaking.

The aim of the committee is to ensure that all parts of Whitehall are working towards a united net-zero vision – a feat which Deben does not believe it will achieve unless it meets on a more regular basis. Johnson notably created the committee on the back of the advice provided by the CCC ahead of the enshrinement of the 2050 net-zero target in UK law.  

“We’ve drawn the attention that it does not work unless it meets on a monthly basis and the Prime Minister actually runs it,” Deben told Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) chair Philip Dunne MP.

“There are sad signs, at the moment, that it is ineffective. We’ve had a re-announcement of hospital and school building – central to that should be a [requirement] that these are all zero-carbon buildings.”

Deben was later asked whether the cabinet committee is necessary given that Johnson has created a climate action strategy committee and climate action implementation committee. Johnson has notably divided his Brexit delivery mechanisms into strategy and implementation, with MPs on the BEIS committee noting the similarities in structure.

“The cabinet committee does seem, to us, absolutely crucial, because there is a whole group of departments that have to be working together to deliver what we need to deliver to make COP26 a success,” Deben said.

“BEIS has got an important role to play itself, and that is the most important role. But it ought to be recognising how other departments have to play their part if it can deliver the role it has. It should be able to do that through the cabinet committee and also through its bilateral arrangements, which look like they are not working very well at the moment, to be truthful.

“If [the cabinet committee] is not the driving force, I don’t’ believe there will be a successful driving force.

“It’s not clear yet… exactly how the Government sees these other bits fitting in. We are looking at that. You can take at least one good thing from that; the Government is seeking to set in motion the mechanism which will deliver.”

Lord Deben recently penned an exclusive blog for edie, entitled: ‘Why resilience through the lens of sustainability is the only green recovery strategy’. You can read that article in full here.

Sarah George

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