Green Alliance: Government ‘complacency’ risks UK’s net-zero transition

Progress in decarbonising electricity must be replicated in other sectors

That is according to a new policy tracker published today (20 April) by think-tank Green Alliance.

According to the report, emissions from the UK’s power sector were equivalent to 21% of the national annual total in 1990, but just 11% in 2021. Analysts attribute this trend to the successful phase-out of coal power and the growth of renewables – particularly offshore wind. The UK’s last coal-fired electricity plants must come offline by 2024.

Previous reports have shown that transport, which has decarbonised far slower, overtook power generation as the UK’s most-emitting sector in 2016. This report re-emphasises this trend but also tracks similarly slow progress in transport, agriculture, land use and the built environment – the latter, mainly due to embodied carbon and fossil-based heating.

Unless more is done to accelerate the low-carbon transition in these sectors – which are believed to be harder to tackle than electricity – the UK’s annual emissions in 2030 will be 40% higher than the level needed to deliver the net-zero transition.

Green Alliance points to several potential reasons for slow progress and ways to turn the tide. While reiterating calls for a more joined-up approach between departments, the report also urges Ministers to decide on bold interim climate targets as a matter of urgency. It puts forward the case for a commitment to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030, against a 1990 baseline, and to respond to the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget recommendations. Published late last year, the recommendations explain how the UK could cut emissions by 78% by 2035, again, against 1990 levels.

The new report also states that the UK is under-financing the low-carbon transition. It argues that annual funding for net-zero focussed policies should be increased from the £21.2bn pledged in 2020 to £43.6bn this year. This level of funding should then be maintained in 2022, 2023 and 2024, it states. Key policy packages will be the low-carbon transport roadmap, Heat and Buildings Strategy and Agriculture Bill.

Powering ahead

The report also argues that while the power sector has made strong progress, work is not complete. More must be done to develop infrastructure in line with predicted increases in electricity demand, Green  Alliance states, and unabated oil and gas production must be downsized.

Green Alliance’s recommendation is for all polluting fossil fuels to be removed from the UK’s power system within 15 years. After this point, fuels with abatement measures like carbon capture arrays could still be produced, as could fossil fuels for use in products like plastics.

The UK Government’s recent North Sea Transition Deal was broadly criticised across the green economy. It set no time-bound targets for reducing production or scaling up alternatives like hydrogen and offshore wind.

COP26 questions

The Green Alliance report comes shortly after the UK’s COP26 unit confirmed plans to hold May’s pre-conference meetings online.

Ministers in the UK are reportedly pushing for as much of COP26 to take place in person as possible, on the planned dates in November. Lockdown is notably expected to be fully lifted across the UK from late summer.

However, the changing Covid-19 situation in other nations has led many other governments to question whether it would be better to use a virtual format, or even postpone the summit altogether. Aside from Governments, thought leaders such as Greta Thunberg and Yvo de Boer have put forward the case for further delays to ensure that outcomes are ambitious enough and have broad support.

The UK and UN said in a statement that May’s talks must go ahead to time, albeit in a virtual format, to “advance the extensive work that needs to be addressed”.

Sarah George

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