Lord Deben: The UK’s net-zero review is an opportunity to accelerate delivery, not an excuse to water down ambition
EXCLUSIVE: The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) chairman Lord Deben has told edie that “there is no question of net-zero itself being questioned” by the UK Government, despite concerns about the findings of the net-zero review ordered by Liz Truss potentially being used to scrap key delivery plans.
Speaking to edie exclusively for Net-Zero November 2022, former Environment Secretary Lord Deben dials in for a video call from his home in Suffolk.
The call comes after weeks of political turbulence in Westminster. Rishi Sunak was last week appointed as the next leader of the Conservative Party and, subsequently, formally announced as Prime Minister. He is the UK’s third Prime Minister within less than three months, with Liz Truss’s premiership following Boris Johnson’s resignation having lasted less than 50 days.
This backdrop has doubtless made it challenging for the sustainability and business leaders in edie’s network to get their message across to policymakers or to assess the business case for certain technologies and approaches amid uncertainty over the future of incentive schemes.
Deben tells edie that, throughout the upheavals of recent months, the CCC has maintained “constant relationships with Government Departments and touch-points with Ministers”. However, he concedes that it is “much easier” for the CCC to be sure its messages are heard “now that we have what one might call a permanent Government”.
Deben also points to one silver lining for green policy from Truss’s short and fraught premiership – the net-zero review. The review, which officially began on 26 September, is being overseen by Chris Skidmore MP. The aim is to flesh out – and, if needed, adapt – the UK’s plans for the net-zero transition. Truss wanted the pathway to be as “pro-growth and pro-business” as possible.
“We are very encouraged by the fact that Chris Skidmore MP has been given the duty to explore how best to deliver net-zero,” Deben says. “Contrary to the misunderstandings of some people, there is no question of net-zero itself being questioned. The issue at hand is whether we’re doing it the wrong way. Well, we are saying that we are not doing it the right way, so we support [the review]. We’ve been providing all the information which Skidmore needs and are working with him very closely.”
The CCC’s 2022 progress report to Parliament stated that the UK is making “scant progress” on decarbonisation. The Committee stated that, despite strong headline targets, there have been a string of “major failures in delivery plans” – both in design and implementation – that have hampered progress in high-emission sectors such as buildings, transport and agriculture.
Despite these warnings, Truss’s government reportedly laid the foundations for moves that would hinder nature restoration on farms, discourage solar development and unsettle potential investors in renewables. There was also, at one point, talk of pushing the petrol and diesel car and van back. Truss’s Business and Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg has, since resigning, gone on record and hinted that this was the case. These are all measures that would take the UK further away from, rather than closer than, operating in line with the CCC’s recommendations.
Deben, nonetheless, believes that the results of the review are likely to be used for positive change.
The CCC’s progress report named improving building energy efficiency and decarbonising agriculture as the two areas in which national progress has been slowest.
Ministers have, for months, faced mounting calls to tackle the former, if not on climate grounds, with the need to shield homes and businesses from the energy price crisis this winter in mind. Yet successive Prime Ministers have failed to bring forward a replacement for the £1bn Green Homes Grant, hastily implemented when Sunak was Chancellor. Deben tells edie that getting a “sensible replacement” is “exactly what we need”.
When asked whether it is, at this stage, too late to make a meaningful national intervention for this winter, he adds: “It is never too late to get a sensible system underway; even if you have a temporary system, you can then refine it. One of the things we certainly could and should do is further increasing the money which local authorities have for energy efficiency for the poorest.”
It is to be noted that the interventions currently keeping dual-fuel bills down for domestic and business energy users are now due to be reviewed in April 2023. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has hinted that support for businesses will be targeted at SMEs and other firms in most need of help, and that the scheme could provide energy efficiency incentives. In homes, the review should end the blanket provision of support to all and better target support at vulnerable demographics.
Commenting on the potential emissions implications of these changes, Deben explains: “The problem with that is that you don’t get anything like the same level of reduction of energy use, because the very poorest have not been able to use enough to keep warm in the first instance. But there is a big social side to this, a levelling-up side to this. This is more important than ever and is the first priority.
“In terms of reducing energy use nationally, it is very important for average families to move from where they are to something better.”
Aside from the question of when and where the money should go, Ministers are also grappling with the communications question. Rees-Mogg drew up plans for a public campaign on energy efficiency which Truss reportedly rubbished as she was not keen to have her Party being seen to dictate how the general public should lead their day-to-day lives. This rhetoric has previously been dep
Deben believes that, in this case, Truss had taken the wrong approach – he wants any replacement for the Green Homes Grant to be “simple, clearly valuable and, above all, to have as its first priority the provision of information”. “I do think the biggest issue for energy efficiency is that people just don’t know what to do,” he adds.
The good news is that Sunak has committed to achieving the Conservative Party’s commitment on energy efficiency from its 2019 General Election Manifesto. The document touts a total energy efficiency spending pot of more than £9bn, of which, £6.3bn should be for homes.
Beyond Sunak’s general approach to net-zero policymaking at home, he has received much attention in recent days for declining his invitation to COP27. Green campaign groups, NGOs and businesses have been urging him to reconsider and send a stronger message on climate leadership as the UK rounds out its own COP presidency. He may yet decide to go, following Johnson’s footsteps, it is being reported.
Even before declining the invitation, eyebrows were raised over Sunak’s decision to remove Alok Sharma, in his role as COP26 President, and Climate Minister Graham Stuart, from Cabinet meetings.
For Deben, the decision on Sharma is not a particular cause for concern. He believes it is “perfectly reasonable” given that Sharma’s work will soon come to a close and that his attendance at Cabinet was mainly needed to set out the cross-departmental management of COP26 before, during and after the two-week summit.
Deben continues: “I think the problem we face for this COP is that the biggest decisions which have to be made are about burden… How do the people who have benefitted from the pollution that has caused climate change enable the poorer countries to grow without going through the dirty, polluting situation they went through?
“This is about the worst possible time to ask that question. Everybody is facing cost-of-living crises and the ongoing war in Ukraine means this situation is going to be prolonged.
“This is a very difficult time for nations to commit themselves to what they need to – and, I have no doubt about this at all, they do need to commit themselves. They must provide not just the money but the resources, government support, and so on, that developing nations need. It is a tough, tough operation.
“With all its advantages, Egypt does not have the international reach that either France or the UK have had ahead of the two big COP breakthroughs in Paris and Glasgow.
“I have every sympathy with all those working hard to try and make the best of it.”