Ministers accused of failing to show commitment to UK net zero target

The government has been accused of showing a lack of commitment to the UK’s net zero target after taking a series of steps that appear to contradict the policy.

Environmental campaigners have also criticised ministers for not publishing detailed plans for how Britain will reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The government has not issued its overarching roadmap for achieving net zero. Two other key documents — a Treasury review of where the costs of the transition to net zero will fall and a decarbonisation strategy for household heating and buildings — were expected in early 2021 but have also yet to be published.

The “generous view” of the government’s failure so far to publish its plans is that it is being “strategic” and will release them as a coherent package, said Mike Thompson, director of analysis at the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government. “The ungenerous view is just that . . . we’re not going fast enough.”

Whether the Treasury is taking net zero seriously is something “I don’t think we know”, he added. “We’ve had some of the right words . . . but in terms of active difficult decisions, we’ve not seen much of that yet.” 

A flagship £1.5bn programme to upgrade England’s homes with better insulation was scrapped in March © Arturs Budkevics/Dreamstime

Former prime minister Theresa May in 2019 committed the UK to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, but Boris Johnson is also seeking to make environmental policy a centrepiece of his government.

Last year he set out a 10 point plan for a £12bn “green industrial revolution”, and in November the UK will host the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

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COP26 president Alok Sharma, the former business secretary, warned at a Financial Times conference last month of an “environmental catastrophe the likes of which the world has not seen before” if governments and businesses did not “act now”.

But environmental campaigners’ concerns about the government’s commitment to net zero have intensified after chancellor Rishi Sunak’s March Budget was deemed “climate lite”.

“There’s been some concern for a lot of stakeholders that [the government] are not backing up the rhetoric and targets with serious policy,” said Ed Matthew, campaigns director at E3G, a climate think-tank. “The Treasury still doesn’t seem to get it.”

The latest disappointment for environmental campaigners came last month when the government scrapped a flagship £1.5bn initiative to upgrade England’s homes with better insulation. The business department said an additional £300m would instead be made available for a separate green housing scheme focused on low income households.

The House of Commons environmental audit committee had just five days earlier warned that net zero would be impossible to achieve unless the energy efficiency of homes was urgently improved. It said the government had “significantly underestimated” the cost.

The government last month also announced there would not be an end to oil and gas exploration in the UK North Sea, although it would help the energy industry halve its offshore production emissions by 2030, relative to 2018 levels.

Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, said in a letter to business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng that the 2030 goal was “significantly lower” than what it had recommended, adding the government should set a more ambitious target to avoid “damaging the UK’s authority as COP president”. The business department is planning to respond.

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Environmental campaigners’ hackles were also raised after the government in January gave the go-ahead to a new coal mine in Cumbria. But after objections from activists including Greta Thunberg, the government last month ordered a public inquiry into the £160m project.

Sam Alvis of the Green Alliance, a think-tank, said what was lacking from the government was the integration of net zero into all policy and spending decisions.

Environmental campaigners’ hackles were raised when the government gave the go-ahead to a new coal mine in Cumbria © West Cumbria Mining Company

The Treasury appeared to be “hesitant to put their full weight behind [the green transition]”, he added. The finalisation of its review into the costs of the transition to net zero might jump start some activity, but in the meantime opportunities were being “missed”, said Alvis.

The Commons public accounts committee raised a similar concern last month. 

Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at Oxford university, said the work left to do by the UK to reach net zero was “undoubtedly going to get harder from here”.

He added long term “policy certainty” was crucial to enable businesses to plan ahead, particularly for the development of costly technologies such as carbon capture and storage. 

The government said the Treasury review into the costs of the transition to net zero would be published in the spring of 2021. The overarching road map towards 2050 would be published before COP26 and used to “spur global action”, it added.

Johnson’s 10-point plan for a green recovery “gives us a clear strategy to eliminate our contribution to climate change by 2050 and we are taking concrete steps to reach that goal”, said the government.

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