The Net-Zero Strategy: The Good, the Bad and the Untimely

Tuesday 19 October was a monumental day for green policy, with the Net-Zero Strategy, the Heat and Buildings Strategy and the Treasury's Net-Zero Review all laying the foundations for a previously unimaginable road to decarbonisation. It is the strategy the Government needs, but not the one the green economy deserves.

The Net-Zero Strategy: The Good, the Bad and the Untimely

There was a real and growing concerns that the hosts of COP26 were set to enter November’s two week climate summit, whereby it would call on nations to ramp up climate commitments, without a detailed understanding of how it would reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Practice what you preach and whatnot.

The Government has unveiled a patchwork quilt of key climate commitments in recent months. The Hydrogen Strategy outlines plans to unlock £4bn of investment in blue and green generation, storage and usage this decade, while the Transport Decarbonisation Plan details how all modes of domestic transport will align with the national net-zero target.

We’ve had National Infrastructure Strategies, green gilt drives and sector deals for key areas of the economy like offshore wind and oil and gas. The Primer Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution has been the thread that has linked all of these together. That, and net-zero.

And yet, at the start of the week, just two weeks away from COP26, there was no sign of the Net-Zero Strategy. The plan was always to publish it prior to the Summit, but surely not so close to it that it doesn’t really give the green economy a chance to properly scrutinise it.

The Good

Thirteen Days out from COP26, as households embrace the Halloween spirit, the Net-Zero Strategy arrived. I hope you’re not superstitious.

Early reaction to the Strategy has been mixed. Some believe it provides a solid foundation to act upon, while others have lamented its lack of clarity. This is understandable.

Almost six years ago we witnessed the formation of the Paris Agreement. Since that historic moment in time, sustainability and climate action has snowballed into a mainstream behemoth. Back in 2015, it was near unimaginable that around three-quarters of the world’s economy would be covered by net-zero targets, yet here we are.

The UK’s Net-Zero Strategy is less of a step-by-step blueprint to reaching net-zero and more of a sticker album of those aforementioned plans. It is the central location of the Government’s decarbonisation plans. And its much needed.

Decarbonising all sectors on the road to net-zero requires a type of joined-up thinking that has been lacking from Government planning for decades. Switching to electric vehicles (EVs) requires city planning consideration for charge points. Electrifying some industries will still leave others relying on solutions like hydrogen and switching to heat pumps won’t help much if the UK’s building stock isn’t designed to higher efficiency standards.

Credit must be given to Government for weaving a comprehensive approach to net-zero, especially those who worked tirelessly at BEIS to attempt to shape that joined-up approach into a coherent, 368-page document.

The Bad

On the other side of this strategic coin, however, lies disappointment. Some wanted more. More ambition, more clarity, more detailed analysis of what the requirements are to reach net-zero. That will come, hopefully, in time.

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) chief executive Chris Stark expressed his joy that the Strategy has largely mirrored the watchdog’s own advice, enabling them assess and advise much more clearly moving forward.

However, others will rightly point to the lack of new information in the Strategy. The UK is off course to meeting future Carbon Budgets and ringfenced funding and predicted job growth won’t be enough to appease those seeking information on how decarbonisation will impact their sectors or businesses. But the Strategy is merely the landing page for the nation’s decarbonisation plans and a plethora of other documents hint at how the Government will begin to spell out the net-zero transition.

The UK’s green businesses and industries need more. They need some actual data on decarbonisation rates. They need to understand the role they can play and the benefits they can unlock. They need a Government that uses COP26 as a springboard for unprecedented climate action, both nationally and globally.

As Carbon Brief’s Dr Simon Evans pointed out on Twitter, the Government has so far published 19 separate documents consisting of 1,718 pages on green policy this week. These range from consultations and calls for evidence on things like boiler upgrades and greenhouse gas removals, to responses to adaptation and mitigation advice from the CCC. Nevertheless, there is a lot to sink your teeth into.

The Untimely

This is where I, as a journalist, have my biggest issue with the Net-Zero Strategy.

When I started reporting on green policy six years ago, we would be sent pdfs of the actual reports in advance, so we could research, question and scrutinise where appropriate. Take the 2017 Clean Growth Strategy, for example. It was as cutting-edge back then as a national net-zero strategy is now. Journalists were able to pour through the pages to uncover key questions and concerns and the media could shine a light on any absentees from these strategies.

Fast-forward four years and the Government does things a little differently now. The media, and therefore the public, are drip-fed information. First, a press release, featuring a quote from the Prime Minister and a quick summary of key commitments (many of which were already issued in previous announcements). Then, usually, around twelve hours later, the actual strategy arrives, at a time where it has largely moved beyond the interest of the public eye.

This week’s barrage of green commitments from the Government is welcome, but I can’t help shake the feeling this has been pushed out the door at the last minute to avoid scrutiny, or rushed out as some sort of oven-ready placeholder until COP26 is out the way, when the Government can make more promises for more strategies further down the line.

The Net-Zero Strategy is a juxtaposition in itself. It is both what we need prior to COP26 and also nowhere near what we need in terms of detailed plans to decarbonise our economy. It is a monument as to how far the UK has come on its climate ambitions but could also be the wreckage synonymous with a lack of action that fails to capture the last great opportunity to deliver prosperity while fighting the climate crisis. Only time will tell, but the planet is fast running out of that.

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