Towards net-zero: The 8 green policies UK businesses are still waiting for

The UK Government vowed last week to publish a "comprehensive" net-zero strategy ahead of COP26 in November 2021. But several glaring policy gaps remain. Here, edie rounds up the major policy announcements the green economy is waiting for.

Towards net-zero: The 8 green policies UK businesses are still waiting for

Departments are having to play catch-up after Covid-19-related delays - but will they move rapidly enough and co-ordinate ambitions and actions?

The commitment to develop the net-zero strategy, which will detail time-bound targets and dedicated support for each major sector, was made in response to the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) latest annual advisory paper to Ministers. CCC staff used the report to call for stronger coordination across Whitehall and for all Covid-19 recovery provisions to be made in line with long-term climate goals.

While the UK Government received praise when it enshrined the net-zero target in law in 2050, Ministers have repeatedly faced calls for more clarity on their plans to address hard-to-abate sectors; to support a socially just transition; to ensure that first steps are taken promptly and to encourage sector-wide and cross-sector collaboration.

BEIS Secretary and COP26 President Alok Sharma was recently grilled by MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) on these topics. He said that the current government has plans for “joined-up” policymaking on the road to net-zero but was unable to cite examples of past successes in this respect.

With this in mind – and with Boris Johnson expected to unveil further facets of his ten-point green recovery plan in the coming weeks – edie provides an update on the big green policy announcements we’re expecting by the end of 2020.

1) Energy White Paper

The Energy White Paper was originally due for publication in Summer 2019. It is designed to ensure that all actors involved in the UK’s energy systems, including generators, the ESO, DSOs and end-users, reap the benefits as energy systems shift in line with trends such as electrification and digitisation. As such, its initial delay was put down to the UK legislating for net-zero last June.

Given that electricity is seen as a key enabler of decarbonisation in other sectors, this policy package is regarded as crucial to the net-zero transition. It will reportedly contain measures to support small modular nuclear reactors, energy storage systems and small-scale renewables projects, alongside an update to RIIO-2 price controls.

Edie’s sister title Utility Week has been following the progress of the White Paper closely. You can access their content on this topic here.

2) Buildings Strategy

Buildings account for a significant proportion of the UK’s annual emissions and energy demand. Moreover, many of the buildings in existence today, and certainly most of those currently in the construction pipeline, will be standing in and after 2050.  

Businesses across the built environment sector have demonstrated leadership and collaboration on the net-zero agenda, developing agreed definitions and frameworks and setting pre-2050 targets that cover supply chains as well as operations.

The Buildings Strategy will bring the laggards up to speed and is due by the end of the year. It will replace the Construction Strategy, which concludes at the end of 2020. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) recently told edie that it expects upcoming policy support for

3) Heat Strategy

Another Strategy due this autumn, according to Sharma, is the Heat Strategy. Heat is regarded as a hard-to-abate sector for technology reasons, but green groups have argued that policymakers could – and should – have done more in the past. Only 8-10% of the UK’s homes will be heated with renewable energy by the end of 2020, when the target was 12%.

The Strategy will confirm the Government’s plans for replacing the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which closes for households in 2022 and businesses in 2021. The replacement mechanism – the Clean Heat Grant – will provide up to £4,000 per applicant. It may also have stricter eligibility criteria and exclude biomass. Organisations including the CCC, Renewable Energy Association (REA), Confederation of British Industries (CBI) and UK Energy Research Centre have all urged those developing the Strategy to make it broader in scope and longer-term than the RHI.

4) Transport ‘roadmaps’

Transport overtook power generation in 2016 to become the UK’s highest-emitting sector. Before Covid-19, emissions from the sector had been rising steadily, and experts believe they will rebound without strong policy interventions.

The Department for Transport pledged, before the 2019 general election, to publish roadmaps for aligning “every single mode of transport” with net-zero by the end of 2020. It provided an update to media representatives in spring, stating that it was striving to keep to this timeline despite the pandemic. Since then, no official update has been provided.

Johnson seems to be betting heavily on electric vehicle manufacturing and infrastructure here, alongside active transport. The UK has allocated £2bn to walking and cycling infrastructure as part of recovery stimuli, on the latter.

5) National Infrastructure Strategy

The National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) was originally due to be published in Spring to coincide with the Budget. The Treasury said at the time that the decision to delay publication was taken in light of the net-zero target, claiming that the original Strategy was aligned with the Government’s previous ambition to reduce net emissions by 80% by 2050.

Sharma and other Ministers have told media representatives to expect the strategy this Autumn, but a more specific date has not yet been confirmed. With many regions now facing a second lockdown and with the possibility of a second national lockdown remaining on the cards, many businesses, trade bodies and green groups want more clarity in this area, given that major infrastructure projects can provide a short-term boost for GDP and jobs.

Environmental groups are hoping for the strategy to end government backing for projects that lock in carbon in the future. After the Heathrow expansion was blocked on climate grounds, there are calls for the strategy to place more of a focus on decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors like road transport and aviation than on creating jobs in the short-term. Ministers are also being urged to prevent environmental degradation aside from emissions. Anti-HS2 protestors, for example, often cite tree felling as a key sticking point.

6) Environment Bill

The Environment Bill was making strong progress through Parliament pre-lockdown and key figures praised the new powers added at its second reading. It contains measures to maintain and improve environmental standards after the UK leaves the EU. A recent survey of 244 sustainability and energy professionals by edie found that this Bill is the top policy priority.

But it has not yet returned to Parliament since MPs returned from summer recess. This delay is prompting concern from the Green Party and from organisations like Greener UK. Summer saw George Eustice telling MPs that it was Defra’s intention to get Royal Assent for the Bill by the end of 2020. This timing was important, he said, given that the Brexit transition period ends on December 31, and that the Bill is the mechanism for setting up the UK’s post-Brexit environmental watchdog.

An updated timeline has not yet been provided. Nonetheless, Defra has confirmed that the Bill will be updated to include legally binding targets on biodiversity, water, air quality and waste.

7) Resources and Waste Strategy

The Resources and Waste Strategy was introduced in December 2018 and is the first major policy shake-up in this space in more than a decade. It outlines a national deposit return scheme, changes to extended producer responsibility requirements and measures to increase food waste collections.

The second stage of consultations on some of the Strategy’s key provisions, including what it will mean for plastic producers and recyclers, was due in the second half of 2020. August saw Defra confirm that these have been pushed back to 2021. With 45% of emissions globally coming from systems of consumption and production, the link to net-zero is clear.

8) Post-Brexit trade deals

Amid a sea of Covid-19-related headlines, updates on Brexit negotiations are frequently in the news at the moment. The UK has formally agreed a deal with Japan but negotiations with the US and EU are ongoing.

The Environment Bill seeks to enshrine many of the EU’s key environmental standards into UK law after Brexit, but green groups have been calling for the inclusion of specific clauses to prevent the import of goods that don’t comply with the UK’s own domestic targets. The UK Trade Policy Observatory has warned that deals are likely to jeopardise progress towards net-zero without stricter green clauses.

Recent voting on the Agriculture Bill disappointed many environmentalists and farmers – MPs voted by 332 to 279 to reject an amendment designed to require imported food to meet domestic standards on safety, chemicals, animal welfare and environmental impact.

Sarah George

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