Report: UK businesses only set to deliver one-third of emissions cuts needed for net-zero

A study of the decarbonisation plans of 17 of the UK's biggest sectors has found that most are recording either stable or increasing emissions, jeapordising the nation's chance of meeting net-zero by 2050.

Pictured: Industrial activity at Port Talbot 

Pictured: Industrial activity at Port Talbot 

The ‘Journey to Net-Zero’ study was conducted by Zurich UK and the University of the West of England (UWE). Published today, it tracks progress in decarbonisation to date and forecasts likely future progress for 17 sectors: manufacturing; construction; transport; mining; agriculture; wholesale and retail; finance; gas and electricity; health and social work; water and waste management; service provision; ICT; real estate; accommodation and food hospitality; arts, entertainment and recreation; defence and public administration and education.

Looking at the year-on-year decarbonisation progress of these sectors, just five managed to decrease emissions, namely arts, entertainment and recreation; health and social work; education; gas and electricity and public administration and defence.

While the report predicts that some of the sectors currently recording stable or increasing emissions will soon begin to deliver cuts, it ultimately concludes that they will not be deep or rapid enough for net-zero alignment. The report states that, collectively, the 17 sectors will need to mitigate 382 megatonnes of CO2e by 2035 to align with the UK’s Sixth Carbon Budget. They are likely to deliver cuts of just 131 megatonnes, 34% of this figure.

Moreover, the net-zero transition plans of several key sectors are likely to deepen existing socio-economic inequalities, despite growing support for a just transition and levelling up. Mining is identified as the most at-risk sector in this respect.

Sectors that will face the greatest challenge in aligning with net-zero, the report predicts, are heavy industries, manufacturing and transport. But it emphasises the fact that net-zero alignment could be possible with better Government support and the adoption of a ‘whole supply chain’ approach in the private sector.

In terms of Government support, the report calls not only for larger-scale investment in key low-carbon technologies and infrastructure, but for guarantees that incentives are long-term and consistent, to give businesses the confidence they need. Technologies raised include carbon capture and storage (CCS), green hydrogen and low-carbon construction materials and approaches.

It also recommends that the Government takes the lead in developing a standardised carbon accounting methodology that properly reflects emissions across the value chain. CDP has stated that the average large business is generating five-and-a-half times more emissions indirectly than through direct operations.

Additionally, the report highlights how most of the UK’s decarbonisation to date has been driven within the power sector and has not required large-scale behaviour change from the general public – but that this will need to change in the coming decades. Several solutions are flagged, including eco-labelling on food; better support for walking, cycling and electric vehicle (EV) adoption; and more funding for arts and culture with a climate focus.

“The UK industrial sectors are highly interconnected and therefore it is important to adopt a joined-up and collaborative approach to net-zero,” lead report author Dr Laura de Vito, of the UWE’s faculty of environment and technology said.

“Solutions are available - we now must focus our efforts in implementing them, especially in light of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which demands urgent and decisive change.

“The UK Government will need to play a crucial role in driving this change at the required scale and pace, and in unlocking collaboration opportunities across industry sectors and at all levels of society.”

Boris Johnson has committed to delivering an overarching Net-Zero Strategy ahead of COP26, which begins in Glasgow in less than six weeks.

Credible corporate carbon targets?

Also publishing an analysis of business net-zero progress today is the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

The Initiative has revealed that 4,215 companies based within G20 nations have disclosed climate targets through CDP. Yet just one-fifth of these companies have received verification from the SBTi.

In other words, 80% of targets are not verified as aligned with what climate science demands to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

The G20 nations with the highest proportions of verified targets were the UK and France, with 41% and 33% of disclosed targets verified respectively. However, no targets set by corporates in Indonesia, Russia and Saudi Arabia have been verified.

Also in the G20 are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, the US and the EU.

The SBTi’s board chair Lila Karbassi said: “Last month’s IPCC report was ‘code red’ for humanity. Urgent climate action must now be a top priority for those in power.

“Science-based targets are proven to cut corporate emissions at the pace and scale required - they are a vital part of the puzzle for governments and companies worldwide. Ahead of the G20 Summit and COP26, our world leaders must put their full support behind science-based targets as an effective way to slash emissions.”

The G20 Summit will be held in Rome on 30 October. COP26 commences in Glasgow the following day.

Sarah George



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