The good, the bad and the unlawful: Where did it all go wrong for the UK’s approach to net-zero?

The High Court has ruled that the Net-Zero Strategy is unlawful, the namesake behind the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution is departing and concerns persist that the next leader of the country may try to scale back on climate commitments. Where did it all go wrong for net-zero in the UK?

The good, the bad and the unlawful: Where did it all go wrong for the UK’s approach to net-zero?

Net-zero shouldn’t rely on policy, it should shape policy

As the UK grapples with heatwaves and record temperatures, it was perhaps fitting that the Government’s own roadmap to meet net-zero emissions by 2050, and therefore attempt to alleviate some of the worst climate impacts moving forward, was ruled unlawful.

The Government’s landmark Net-Zero Strategy, first published last October in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, has been ruled as inadequate and unlawful by the High Court, following a successful legal challenge brought by Good Law Project, Joanna Wheatley, Client Earth and Friends of the Earth.

In a judgment published on Monday (18 July), the High Court ruled that the Strategy is too vague, meaning that there were no assurances that targets listed under the Strategy, which aims to decarbonise the UK economy to net-zero by 2050, could be met.

The ruling, in which the Government have eight months to flesh out the Strategy, is the latest waypoint on an uneven road towards the Government’s self-proclaimed “world leading” net-zero journey.

Back in 2018, the UK became the first major economy to enshrine net-zero into law, but with discussions on a new deep coal mine in Whitehaven still ongoing and power plants agreeing to extend coal generation into the winter to combat the energy crisis, you have to ask, what has happened over the last four years?

Since enshrining the net-zero target into law, the Government has continuously promised an in-depth strategy detailing how the nation would meet this unprecedented goal.

The Strategy finally arrived just weeks out from COP26, alongside a flurry of other strategies and frameworks that sat beneath this huge umbrella strategy. Indeed, COP26 was one of the bright spots on the UK’s net-zero journey to date, the Presidency team steered by Alok Sharma was influential in leading global negotiations which culminated in the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Through the Pact nations have committed to revisiting climate targets and update where applicable. It seems likely that the UK will need to update its targets.

Just nine months after its publication, the Strategy has been ruled unlawful. The UK’s net-zero ambition has been hampered by a lack of clarity, rushed or delayed framework announcements and, importantly, that focus on the climate has been derailed by the fallout from the pandemic and the Partygate scandals that gripped Whitehall.

Two steps forward…

The Government’s approach to green policy since enshrining the net-zero target into law has been to take a huge stride forward (we’ve seen record green gilt packages, mandates on reporting and a plethora of new strategies) and stick the flag in the ground in proclamation and then slowly tiptoe back towards base. It’s essentially two steps forwards and then one step back, if not more.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the built environment, where the Government just cannot get a policy to stick. The Zero Carbon Homes Standard was scrapped by the Conservatives in 2015. According to the Guardian, almost 1.2 million new homes have since been built with energy efficiency standards “that are well below those needed in the long term to reach the net zero greenhouse gas emissions target”.

Following the net-zero target, the Government introduced the Green Homes Grant, but ministers have since announced that some £1.5bn of the scheme’s initially earmarked £2bn had been withdrawn, citing a shortage of certified suppliers to deliver the works.

MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) are now warning that the UK Government has underestimated the costs of decarbonising existing UK homes by 2050 – its net-zero deadline – by at least £35bn. In the worst-case scenario, the costs of retrofitting could be £65bn higher than current forecasts.

The struggles facing policy in the built environment are interesting because a lot of the low-hanging fruit to decarbonise buildings is commercially viable and widely available. Plans to decarbonise industrial clusters using carbon capture and storage technology, heat through hydrogen and aviation through Sustainable Aviation Fuels are all welcome, but are also extremely untested and will require clear Government guidance and market signals if they are to be successfully scaled and utilised across the UK.

In defence of the policymakers, net-zero is an untamed beast. For a developed economy like the UK there are question marks around how certain sectors can reach net-zero and what technology solutions are viable, but realising the quick wins and delivering progress requires tangible, clear strategies with timebound commitments.

It’s like trying to run a marathon and then just slipping your shoes on, heading out the door and hoping you’ll cover the distance. Net-zero requires a plan, for every sector of the economy. And there’s a big difference between a plan and the documents that the Government is rolling out and calling “strategies”.

The recent Climate Change Committee report shows that under these current strategies, the Net-Zero Strategy will cover around one-third of required UK emissions reductions just to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget in the 2030s, with another 25% of emissions potentially covered based on a range of external factors. However, the CCC notes that more than 33% of required emissions reductions aren’t covered by existing policies.

The new 600-page assessment of the UK Government’s efforts to reach net-zero offer a stark warning that adequate policies and frameworks are not in place to help the UK reach net-zero.

The Net-Zero Strategy “contains warm words but little progress” on efforts to reach net-zero, with the CCC noting that the Treasury is yet to explore the costs and benefits of the net-zero transition.

Read More: What sectors (if any) are on course to reach net-zero emissions?

Even in areas where there are “bright spots of progress”, the CCC is warning that interventions may yet under-deliver.

The Net-Zero Strategy has been criticised by other groups since it was first published. A key criticism is the lack of sector-specific targets to reduce emissions on the road to 2050, which could help ensure that the private sector takes the action needed to contribute to the UK’s upcoming carbon budgets.

Sectors in which emissions reductions will be lowest and slowest as a result of policy gaps, the CCC report states, are agriculture, buildings and heat.

Agriculture and land use was the sector found to have the weakest climate mitigation policy support by the CCC. The report calls progress in reducing farming emissions since 2019 “glacial” and warns of further slow progress without major changes to the Food Strategy and to plans to compensate farmers post-Brexit, rewarding them not only for food production but for delivering “public goods” like healthy soils, water quality improvements, carbon sequestration and restored natural habitats.

Future concerns

So here we are, eight months since COP26 created the net-zero drumbeat across the UK, in the midst of a heatwave and saying farewell to Prime Minister who has jumped before he was pushed.

It is clear that net-zero needs to be embedded across each Government department so that any new announcement (like a £25bn roads plan or airport expansion) has climate considerations and implications baked in. It is clear that this is not happening. For every success – such as the latest Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme securing more 11GW of renewables capacity – U-turns and failures in key areas like buildings and transport just provide more ammunition to the naysayers who want to “cut the green crap”. If those naysayers do prop up the next Cabinet, then it is perceivable that we spend much of 2022 and beyond discussing a withdrawal from the net-zero target akin to Brexit.

For all the grievances over Boris Johnson’s leadership reign (and there were plenty) he was quick to associate himself as one of the drivers of the net-zero movement.

Even having two back-to-back Prime Ministers fully on board with the climate movement is welcome, but look where it got us. What’s worse is that the remaining Conservative leadership candidates have had to be persuaded of the necessity of net-zero.

Take Kemi Badenoch, for example. Instead of linking net-zero to levelling up or looking at the global net-zero picture, her initial response has been to declare she’d look to axe the UK’s 2050 net-zero target if elected. Whether this would be practically possible is questionable. 

Badenoch does appear to have changed her mind since giving the interview to The Sunday Telegraph, following engagement with organisations including the Conservative Environment Network. At the Party Hustings on 17 July, she stated that she would not seek to alter the 2050 net-zero target nor interim carbon budgets. Alok Sharma, COP26 President, was the man who asked that question of Badenoch.

Some of the points Badenoch and others make are correct though, the net-zero target could be hinderance to the UK economy because it is just that, a target. Only a detailed plan that articulates the actions that will deliver benefits – including job growth, energy resiliency and economic gains – can truly cement net-zero as the undeniable future.

Business roles

So, the UK’s net-zero trajectory is unlawful, void of leadership and could potentially backslide further depending on who follows on from Boris Johnson. So what can the business community do about it?

The answer is a lot.

There’s always been a long-held misconception that businesses need policy in order to act. While policy helps build market certainty and pushes laggards into line, the truth is that the timeframe of a chief executive is much greater than the Cabinet at Whitehall. Businesses can set long and stretching targets much more efficiently than Government, because there’s less likely to be a shakeup. And of the thousands of businesses that have set stretching climate goals through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), they are sending a signal to the Government that net-zero is the desired outcome.

Net-zero shouldn’t come from policy, it should shape policy and businesses can deliver seismic market shifts by funnelling R&D and investments into green solutions, upskilling staff into greener roles and unifying their voice to demand that policy provides the relevant support.

Last week, business groups representing thousands of businesses including Amazon, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Scottish Power penned a joint letter to Tory leadership candidates, imploring them to step up efforts towards net-zero and to help combat the energy cost crisis.

Elsewhere, companies like Volvo are leaving lobbying groups because they don’t think they’re acting strongly enough on decarbonisation. Businesses are influential; they have been for centuries in propping up the fossil fuel industry through policy.

Now it’s time for the influence of the net-zero pioneers. Companies that have committed to targets through the SBTi account for more than one third of global market capitalisation, around $38trn. As more join in the net-zero movement becomes stronger.

So yes, the UK’s approach to net-zero is floundering, but it is not derailed. We still know the destination and businesses and policymakers alike need to build a detailed plan to get there.

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