‘Green Day’: Do new UK policies bring us any closer to net-zero by 2050?

The High Court mandated the UK Government to update its Net-Zero Strategy by March 2023 last year, noting that its original plans would not deliver legally required levels of cuts to emissions. But are the new plans, published last week, an improvement?

‘Green Day’: Do new UK policies bring us any closer to net-zero by 2050?

We have known since last Summer that March 2023 was likely to be a significant month for green policymaking in the UK. The High Court sided with ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth in ruling its flagship Net-Zero Strategy ‘unlawful’ in July 2022 and ordered an update within nine months. Given the Government’s track record of leaving green policy updates until the last minute, the update was expected in March 2023.

It came last Thursday (30 March) as part of a bumper day of announcements in which more than 2,800 pages of new pledges, response letters and consultation documents were published across Whitehall.

Like the old Strategy, the new Net-Zero Growth Plan does not include timebound commitments for emissions reductions from specific sectors. It states that net-zero-aligned roadmaps for high-emission sectors currently lacking one will be published in the coming months, alongside new roadmaps for scaling technologies such as heat pumps, hydrogen and carbon capture – both man-made and nature-based.

Unlike the old Strategy, the new documents have come with a carbon budget delivery plan. This sets out the projected cuts in emissions from green policy changes, and compares these levels of emissions reductions to those legally required by forthcoming carbon budgets.

Before the new documents were published, the UK Government’s climate advisors warned that it only had “credible” plans in place to deliver one-third of the emissions cuts needed through to 2050. Do new plans bring us any closer to closing this net-zero gap?

The top line

The carbon budget delivery plan acknowledges that, without further policy interventions, the UK will narrowly miss its sixth carbon budget, delivering some 97% of the emissions reductions required.

Legislated in early 2021, the sixth carbon budget covers the period between 2033 and 2037 and has been described as “the toughest yet”.

Also noted in the plan is the fact that the UK is likely to miss its international climate commitments under the Paris Agreement for 2030, delivering a maximum of 92% of the emissions reductions it is committed to. Green Alliance has stated that 92% would be a “very generous” estimate.

The Government still believes it can deliver more than the level of decarbonisation needed to meet the fourth carbon budget (2023 – 2027) and around the level needed to meet the fifth (2028 – 2032), despite the Climate Change Committee (CCC) expressing deep concerns about the meeting of the latter.

We won’t get an analysis from the CCC on the new plans until this summer. In the meantime, the Government is being warned that it is not safe from further legal action.

Friends of the Earth’s head of policy Mike Childs said: “It is deeply troubling that, by its own admission, the government’s quantified plans don’t fully meet legal targets for reducing UK emissions, let alone the deeper cuts that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised at international climate talks just four months ago.”

Childs said he and his team “are ready to take legal action again if necessary” and called the delivery of plans aligned with legal climate commitments “the absolute minimum of the urgent action needed”.

Steps forward, steps back

Some of the measures announced last week are likely to result in emissions reductions greater than plans set out in 2021. But other measures are actually likely to be weaker, according to Carbon Brief, which has compared Government emissions forecasts from both editions of policy strategy.

Areas where updated plans are likely to result in deeper decarbonisation include nature restoration, particularly peatlands; aviation; road transport and heating.

On heating, plans are taking shape to increase the share of buildings heated by heat networks to 20% by 2050. With the launch of heat pump accelerator funding and the extension of grants to help homes replace boilers with heat pumps, progress is recorded here too.

On transport, the zero-emission vehicle mandate consultation is welcomed as a step forward.  As a minimum, the Government is proposing that new 22% of new cars sold in 2024 should be zero-emission in 2024. The consultation seeks to bin down exact targets for 2024 and beyond, in support of the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales.

Another transport-related consultation is on the forthcoming Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) mandate, which will require airlines to use an ever-increasing share of SAF in fuel blends. With the Government having already decided on initial blending requirement percentages and timelines (starting with 10% in 2030), this new consultation will cover post-2030 targets and the specific design of the scheme,

Additionally, the Government’s new plans to scale carbon capture, now backed with a £20bn commitment over 20 years, are – of course – more ambitious than their predecessor. But it bears noting that concerns persist around whether the Government is investing in unproven carbon capture technologies as an alternative to direct decarbonisation.

Areas in which plans are less ambitious than the 2021 edition, according to Carbon Brief, include improving resource efficiency and creating and restoring forests.

Missing pieces

As expected, measures announced on Green Day still do not include everything recommended by the CCC to reach net-zero by 2050, including those crucial time-bound, sector-specific decarbonisation plans. Several other, more specific recommendations from the Committee have been declined by successive Governments since 2019 on the grounds that they go against the Conservative Party’s approach to running the country, including:

Land use, agriculture, buildings and heat were found to be some of the slowest British sectors to decarbonise by the CCC last year. The Committee warned of “glacial” progress in agriculture and “major failures in delivery programmes” in the other areas.

Unfortunately, the new documents appear to do little to close these gaps. Carbon Brief believes that new plans on low-carbon farming are no more ambitious than their predecessors. A land use strategy was expected from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in January but is now reportedly being delayed until June.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has maintained that there will be no new funding for building energy efficiency before 2026. Last week, the boiler upgrade scheme was extended to 2028, but concerns persist about whether it is sufficient enough to make heat pumps affordable to most – and whether the Government is adequately planning for heat networks.

The Government also declined, on Green Day, to implement several of Chris Skidmore MP’s net-zero review recommendations to stated timelines, including:

  • The creation of an Office for Net-Zero Delivery, an independent body to ensure cross-departmental collaboration on climate
  • Banning routine oil and gas flaring by 2025, not 2030
  • Giving Ofgem a net-zero remit
  • Establishing an onshore wind taskforce and setting a time-bound target for scaling onshore wind capacity

Comments (1)

  1. neil blackshaw says:

    Anecdotally here in the cold N East plumbers are saying they are tasking out heat pumps. Surely there is a need for user- oriented performance research. The costs typically quoted never include the ancillary expenditure. That of moving to underfloor is astronomical and a major disruption. The gap between 600000 per year and the fact that about 50,000 have been installed in the last 10 years (Energyrev) beggars belief.

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