Green economy wishlist: How to turn the net-zero pipedream into a low-carbon pipeline

With the latest Committee on Climate Change (CCC) progress report revealing that no UK sector has showcased "good progress" to managing climate risk, the green economy has unanimously called for a net-zero philosophy to steer the nation towards its climate targets.

From transport to the built environment, its clear that policy efforts to date have made the net-zero target nothing more than "warm words" 

From transport to the built environment, its clear that policy efforts to date have made the net-zero target nothing more than "warm words" 

None of the UK's largest 33 sectors have made good progress in improving the way they manage climate risk over the past 12 months, largely due to poor policy support. The CCC’s two-part report (published today 10 July) warns that both business and Government have been slow in “showing they are serious” about tackling and preparing for climate change over the past year, noting that Ministers have delivered just one of the 25 environmental policies it flagged as “critical” in its 2018 report.

The report notes that without a “simple and investable” set of laws, the private sector’s shift to low-carbon technologies is likely to be inefficient. In response, many have urged the Government to turn its net-zero commitment into “something practically meaningful”.

Last week, the National Infrastructure Commission’s chair Sir John Armitt likened achieving the net-zero target to putting a man on the moon, claiming that massive technological advancements would be required to make net-zero a reality.

However, the CCC report has dampened this vision somewhat, and an array of green groups, business leaders and MPs have had their say on how policy can turn a net-zero pipedream into a pipeline of low-carbon jobs, products and technologies. Here, edie rounds up the key wishes of the green economy.

A net-zero philosophy

One of the key recommendations of the CCC report was for net-zero to be embedded across all areas of Government so that the climate target is a key influence and consideration on all future policy decisions, notably in the built environment sector.

WSP’s director of sustainability David Symons said

“There is no time to waste. Today’s welcome report shows the need for faster action to both support delivery of the net zero target and to prepare for climate change. It recognises that targets alone do not deliver results and the scale of action required is unprecedented. Much of the UK’s existing and planned infrastructure will still be in place in 2050, and nearly one million homes will need to be retrofitted every year between now and 2050.

“With a year to go before the UK hopefully hosts the world’s leaders for COP26, and a new Government about to be unveiled, the timing is perfect to demonstrate that Government is about more than setting ambitious goals for the future, and as much about setting a sustained pace of delivery across all sectors. Every day that passes without tangible action to mitigate climate change contributes to increasing the severity of its impacts. For this reason, we support the CCC’s call for Government to embed a net zero philosophy across all levels of Government, to mandate businesses to disclose the financial risks they face from climate change and to take the public onboard this transition.”

Technology testing

Man couldn’t land on the moon without unprecedented technological change, and the UK’s hopes of reaching net-zero by 2050 largely hinge on the role that renewables, electric vehicles (EVs) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) can play. However, cost and efficiency barriers are still halting widescale rollouts of some technologies, leading to calls for policy to act as an enabler to bring solutions to market.

Rachel Reeves MP, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee said

“The Government’s recent commitment to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 was welcome but targets are meaningless if not matched by concrete action. This latest CCC report shows the Government has failed dismally to back up its rhetoric with ambitious policies which deliver the cuts in emissions the UK needs to achieve.

“Getting to net-zero requires will require action across all parts of Government and our economy. Yet, in areas such as electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage, and renewable energy, we have seen the Government has been too lacking in the ambition and political will to deliver the concrete policies necessary to make an impact.

“The costs of inaction, for our economy, for our environment, and for our health, are too great for the UK Government to lag behind. The Government needs to get the UK back on track and come forward with the policies, actions and regulations needed to achieve the more ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050.”

Energy and heat upgrades

As outlined in the report the way the nation uses and consumes heat is in massive need of an overhaul, despite strong efforts to date to remove fossil fuels from the energy mix. In fact, the one policy delivered out of 25 so far by ministers was for fossil fuel heating systems (gas, oil and coal) to be banned by 2025 for new homes.

Energy and Utilities Alliance’s (EUA) chief executive Mike Foster said

“Are we surprised that the UK is ‘lagging far behind’ when it comes to its ambitious emissions targets? No. Is the industry frustrated at the lack of clarity and direction from Government? Yes.”

“Our members have been poised to deliver options to further reduce emissions from heat for some time, but the ‘green light’ from Government has not been forthcoming. We wholeheartedly agree with the CCC that; ‘the UK Government must show it is serious about its legal obligations to tackle and prepare for climate change’ and we urge Government to get off the fence and create the environment where businesses can invest.

“Consumers also need clarity and consideration if they are to come on board. Decarbonising heat must be affordable and with minimal disruption. The gas infrastructure is already in place for nearly 9 out of 10 homes. Using low or zero carbon gas in our homes – such as biomethane or hydrogen – will deliver the carbon reductions we need to make without any major disruption to peoples’ lives.”

Association of Decentralised Energy's chief executive Dr Tim Rotheray said

"The CCC highlights something the whole energy sector has seen. Legislating for net zero is an excellent move – but it alone is not enough. It is time now for Government to get on and make it happen. Of 25 actions identified as needed by the CCC last year only one was completed. Taking the general public with us on the journey requires consistent well-considered action and it is needed now. Policies that enable energy customers to participate in and benefit from the low carbon transition are central to that. 

Across the energy industry, there is a growing sense of frustration at the lack of decision making from politicians to keep emissions falling. For immediate action, we need focus on growing the role of existing sectors such as local energy and energy efficiency, which are already delivering lower costs and increased comfort and productivity for thousands of business customers and homeowners. If Government puts customer-led energy at the heart of its policy making and works alongside business we can put power back into the hands of customers and meet our net zero in a fair way."

Reigning in transport

Despite legislative requirements to phase-out coal-fired power plant production, the UK Government has sent out mixed messages by continuing to support fracking and approving the controversial Heathrow Airport expansion – although the airport believes it can achieve carbon-neutral growth.

Some green groups have claimed that the net-zero target is currently lacking redefined roadmaps, enabling policy decisions like fracking to limit action on climate change. With transport now the UK’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing year-on-year, green groups are demanding action in this area.

Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs said 

“It will take more than warm words to fix the climate crisis. Prime Minister Theresa May keeps talking about the need for climate action, while giving the green light to fracking and more roads and runways. Ending the nation’s reliance on planet-wrecking gas, coal and oil must be the number one priority for the next Prime Minister.

“Reining in the rogue Department for Transport is crucial. It’s been speeding in the wrong direction for far too long, with transport responsible for the largest source of polluting emissions. Billions of pounds are being squandered on gas-guzzling developments, while trams, trains, buses and cycling are starved of investment. There are huge economic and health benefits from leading the charge to a cleaner, safer future – all that’s lacking is the political will.”

Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist Doug Parr said

"This is a truly brutal reality check on the government's current progress in tackling the climate emergency," he said. "It paints the government as a sleeper who's woken up, seen the house is on fire, raised the alarm and gone straight back to sleep.

"Having a world-leading target is not enough, it needs to be accompanied by policies which match the target's ambition on cars and vans, houses and offices, trains and planes. The government can't keep coasting on the carbon reductions from getting coal out of the electricity system, which was absolutely necessary but by no means sufficient. We urgently need to take the same approach to oil, gas, and every sector with significant emissions. The new prime minister really must take the government's net-zero commitment and turn it into something practically meaningful."

London Assembly’s Caroline Russell said

 “This shows an out of touch and hopeless government, just as time for urgent action to prevent dangerous climate change is rapidly running out. One action that the Government could take right now, is to drop their climate-wrecking massive expansion at Heathrow.”

Resource efficiency and infrastructure

Waste management has been in the mainstream spotlight for more than two years now, as citizens and MPs alike demand action on problem materials such as single-use plastics. A key tool in the battle against climate change is championing a circular economy, lower emissions from production, landfill and incineration as a result.

However, infrastructure developments and new services take time and money to implement, leading to questions of how policy is impacting waste at the production and household levels.

SUEZ recycling and recovery UK’s technical development director Stuart Hayward-Higham said 

In our homes offices and factory floors, we all want to play our part to meet the necessary ambition of net zero emissions by 2050 and minimising further climate change.

“Unfortunately, an early ban on food to landfill cannot be achieved by 2025 as we have insufficient time to obtain planning and build the replacement facilities to collect and treat the food waste that would be diverted. Further, we will have only two years after the planned legislative timeframes for consistent collections, EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility schemes) and DRS (Deposit Return Schemes) in which to deliver affordable and viable alternatives which often take five years of more to obtain planning, finance and be constructed.

“Material sums of extra funding will still be needed to fund a whole new “binfrastructure” and vehicles for extra organics waste collection at both local authority level and importantly from businesses, which still account for a significant proportion of food waste.”  

Financing the transition

Since the net-zero law was established, Chancellor Philip Hammond has claimed that it would cost the UK economy around £1trn to meet net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Those claims have largely been dismissed and the CCC notes that reaching net-zero by 2050 can be done using between 1-2% of GDP in 2050. This is the same level of funding currently allocated to work related to compliance with the Climate Change Act.

However, a lack of certainty as to how net-zero will be financed has led some sectors and unions lacking confidence in the nation’s ability to reach the goal.

GMB’s national secretary, Justin Bowden said

“The Committee is quite right, the Government needs act. In fact, what is actually required, is a Government-led mobilisation consistent with that required in a wartime situation. But everyone continues to skirt around the question “who is going to pay for it?” With Government ministers saying that the costs of “net zero” are going to be 2% of GDP, or £36bn per year every year until 2050, the key must be to join up the political, economic and industrial issues with who pays.

 “GMB has always said any ‘green revolution’ must be paid from general taxation – including corporation tax – rather than the utterly regressive method now of green subsidies on household energy bills which hit those least able to pay the hardest. It is not that UK citizens won’t pay for the costs of decarbonisation, it is simply that millions simply cannot afford it.”

Got a view on what policies are required to reach net-zero? Let us know in the comments

Matt Mace



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