Policy gaps: What’s standing between the UK and a net-zero carbon economy?

This week, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published its highly anticipated recommendations detailing how the UK economy could reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. But what policies will need to be changed to ensure that we get there?

Policy gaps: What’s standing between the UK and a net-zero carbon economy?

Policies on afforestation

Published on Thursday, the CCC’s advice has been designed to align with the same cost envelope that is currently put against achieving the current Climate Change Act, which is between 1-2% of GDP in 2050.

With an overarching call for the UK Government to legislate a commitment to a 100% reduction in carbon emissions “as soon as possible”, the framework outlines the rewilding of 20,000 hectares of land annually; bringing the current 2040 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales forward to 2035 and quadrupling the amount of clean energy on the grid as key milestones on the path to a zero-carbon economy.

The advice has already spurred Scotland to legally commit to achieving net-zero by 2045 and has been widely welcomed by key figures across the UK’s green economy, with experts arguing that the legal requirement for new low-carbon goods, systems and services could spur innovation and investment around clean technologies on an unprecedented scale.

But concerns have also been raised that, given the UK is currently well off track to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, national policy is not yet sufficient to support the low-carbon economy of the future.

With this in mind, edie, with the help of a few green policy experts, has rounded up the key policy gaps which currently stand between the UK and net-zero status.

Market standards

The UK’s current Climate Change Act does not cover emissions accounted for by the full lifecycle of products, infrastructure and technologies, with the carbon emitted during overseas activities from manufacturing to end-of-life processing not included in its scope.

Experts at the Aldersgate Group have argued that this would need to be changed to create a “truly” zero-carbon economy.

Additionally, the Group has recommended that more policies which stop locally made low-carbon products such as cement or metals being undercut in price by high-carbon alternatives made abroad. This, it argues, will foster the UK’s green economy while incentivising other nations to implement similarly ambitious carbon policies.

Road transport

Transport it widely viewed as the Achilles heel of the UK’s decarbonisation. It overtook the power industry as the most carbon-intense sector in 2016, and saw its emissions rise by 2% last year, with the main source of emissions deriving from the use of petrol and diesel, as overall emissions fell for the sixth consecutive year.

The CCC’s recommendations clearly state that the creation of a net-zero economy by 2050, at a price parity with an 80% reduction against a 1990 baseline within the same timeframe, depends on the Government moving its ban on new petrol and diesel car sales forward from 2040.

This stance has been taken by various stakeholders across the green economy since the announcement of the ban in 2017, with the likes of the Green Alliance, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee and mayors across the UK calling for it to be shifted forwards into the 2030s. Surprisingly, it has even been supported by Shell.

The Government previously rejected calls to bring the 2040 ban forward, claiming that the date was “sufficient” for the UK to meet its long-standing 2050 target of making “almost every car” in the nation zero-emission. However, this may now change.

The CCC has also criticised the Government’s existing strategy for decarbonising road transport and spurring the e-mobility revolution, called ‘Road to Zero’. The body has said that Ministers are failing to confirm financial support to domestic and business customers seeking to purchase electric vehicles (EVs) after 2020, invest into EV charging infrastructure and associated power system upgrades, or require automakers to set long-term climate targets. Similarly, WWF’s head of climate and energy Gareth Redmond-King said that Road to Zero showed a “failure of climate leadership”.

On heavier vehicles, the Government has pledged, under Road to Zero, to work with industry to develop a new ultra-low emission standard for HGVs and to assess which zero-emissions technologies work best for HGVs through a research project with Highways England.

A new voluntary commitment to reduce HGV greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2025, against a 2015 baseline, will also be introduced and offered to companies with HGV fleets.

But, according to John Lewis Partnerships’ general fleet manager Justin Laney, these moves would also need to be coupled with greater governmental financial support for businesses, as well as funding for technologies such as biofuels and hydrogen, to be successful.

Shipping and aviation

The UK currently excludes international aviation and certain types of international maritime activity from its overall carbon footprint calculations – a caveat which has attracted the ire of green campaign groups and #SchoolStrike4Climate leader Greta Thunberg alike.

But if the Government chooses to adopt the CCC’s recommendations in full, these sectors will no longer experience this exemption, placing the pressure on Ministers to implement policies supporting low-carbon jet fuels and shipping fuels as well as electric boats and aircraft.

Under its current Sector Deal for aviation, the Government has committed to funnel £125m into sustainable aviation projects – but this may need to be boosted in the event of a net-zero target. It is worth noting that Heathrow Airport has previously supported the introduction of a net-zero target for 2050, and that stakeholders across the sector have already begun developing electric aircraft and alternative fuels.  

Nonetheless, critics have argued that the Government can’t pursue a net-zero target while enabling the expansion of Heathrow Airport, despite the organisation’s commitment to a carbon-neutral delivery of the project. The UK Government had been taken to court by a coalition of Greenpeace, the mayor of London and local councils over the anticipated increase in noise and pollution that the third runway would introduce. Friends of the Earth also filed a claim against the expansion, but the High Court dismissed all claims against the airport’s plans by arguing that the Paris Agreement is not part of UK law. 

A Sector Deal for maritime shipping is yet to be developed, but the sector is already making moves in the low-carbon space after the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) spurred more than 170 countries, including the UK, to agree to reduce CO2 emissions from their respective maritime sectors by at least 50% by 2050, against a 2008 baseline.


While the shift to clean energy is now well underway in the electricity sector, heat has proven harder to abate. Heating and hot water account for around 15% of the UK’s overall carbon footprint, with the nation currently off-track to meet a key target of ensuring 12% of heat is generated using renewables by 2020. 

The Government has previously run a number of clean heat initiatives, including a £320m package of grants and loans for businesses, hospitals, schools and local authorities with a heat network of two or more buildings and an Energy Systems Catapult centre to assist small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) with decarbonising their heat systems.

But CCC’s recommendations state that “serious plans” for new legislative frameworks and financial incentives for low-carbon heat will now need to be developed.


The CCC has long claimed that carbon capture and storage (CCS) and energy storage will form a crucial part in the creation of a net-zero economy.

But the UK Government has scrapped efforts to scale up CCS in the UK before, leaving the nation in a position where it is yet to host a large-scale project. In a bid to change this trend, BEIS recently declared an ambition to “make carbon capture, use and storage technologies a reality” by supporting the nation’s first large-scale CCUS facility to come online by the mid-2020s. The Department will publicly unveil plans for how it will achieve this by the end of 2019. The UK’s first CCS and biomass trial is currently taking place at Drax’s power station in Yorkshire, without any Government subsidies.

As for energy storage, BEIS is currently providing £20m through a “Storage at Scale” competition, to help commercialise energy storage projects that would be able to compete with more established technologies. But with experts claiming that £6bn will need to be invested in the UK’s energy storage market by 2030 if the nation is to decarbonise at the rate necessary to meet its existing carbon budgets, more will need to be done by the Government and the private sector alike.

Speaking around clean innovation more generally, the Aldersgate Group has previously called on the Government to provide longer-term funding for emerging clean technologies, past the trial or initial scaling-up phase. Likewise, Climate-KIC’s chief executive Kirsten Dunlop used Green GB Week 2018 to urge policymakers to create frameworks that allow businesses to experiment with innovation without the need for upfront regulation or the fear of future funding losses – something she claimed could “paralyse” efforts.


In the drive to develop new CCS and CCUS technologies, several green economy experts have warned governments and business not to neglect the “original” carbon sequestering tools offered to us by nature, including peatland, woodland and rainforests.

Under the CCC’s pathway to net-zero, 20,000 hectares annually should be required to be rewilded every year through to 2050. But to put that ambition into context, the UK has planted less than 10,000 hectares annually on average over the past five years, with critics slamming its lack of a legally binding long-term reforestation target.

The CCC estimates that the annual costs of removing emissions from the atmosphere could reach as high as £20bn by 2050. However, heavy emitting industries such as aviation could cover the majority of these costs, notably by increasing flight costs from 2035 as emission reductions scale up.

Such a target would, therefore, need to be legislated, and businesses and local authorities educated on the importance of nature restoration in meeting climate goals and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Emissions trading

The UK is also at a crossroads regarding its ability to offset emissions through carbon trading. The EU emissions standards and trading need to be replaced with a stronger equivalent if Brexit goes ahead, and the UK will be excluded from participating in the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) in a no-deal scenario from the withdrawal date.

Ministers have proposed a new carbon-emissions tax, which combined with the Carbon Support Price, creates a combined cost of £34/t, higher than the current EU ETS price of £22/t, which covers nearly 1,400 UK installations that are accountable for around 145Mt of emissions annually. As for the UK’s involvement in the ETS, it has been widely reported that the UK will leave the system and create its own equivalent once Brexit negotiations have been finalised.

Policy clarity

Whenever the present Government cites it carbon action to date, critics are always quick to point to its policy on fracking and its recent decision to allow Cumbria County Council to grant planning approval for a new coal mine facility – just six years before its legally binding ban using coal in the UK’s energy mix. 

Although it has committed to shutting down all coal-fired power plants by 2025 and continues to justify its support for fracking by claiming it is low-carbon and has the “potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, economic growth and jobs”, it is unlikely to be able to sweep criticisms in these areas under the rug in the wake of the CCC’s recommendations. 

Stronger guidelines in these areas, in addition to those concerning the disposal of nuclear waste, are therefore likely to be demanded on the path to net-zero. 

Sarah George

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