The UK’s new net zero strategy will fail to cut emissions enough to hit its own legally enforceable targets, the government has admitted, with environmental analysts and politicians criticising the plans unveiled on Thursday as incoherent.
Ministers were forced to publish a raft of revised policies, contained in 40 documents and nearly 3,000 pages, after a court ruled last year that the existing strategy for reaching net zero emissions was unlawful because it provided insufficient detail on how the target would be met.
In its revised plans, the government’s calculations showed they would only deliver 92 per cent of the emission reductions needed to meet the UK’s 2030 goal, rising to 97 per cent in 2037, a key milestone on the path to net zero by 2050.
In one of the supporting documents to the government’s overall “Powering Up Britain” policy published on Thursday, the government said there was “a judgment to be made whether the policies identified at this stage are sufficient” to meet the so-called sixth carbon budget. This is a reference to UK’s permitted emissions between 2033 and 2037.
Rather than dwell on the shortfall or acknowledge it had updated its net zero plan just ahead of Friday’s court-imposed deadline, ministers instead focused on a raft of policy announcements and consultations on what they billed “energy security day”. The original “green day” label used around Whitehall in the weeks running up to the announcement was quietly dropped.
Energy security minister Graham Stuart told the House of Commons the package would “underpin the UK’s clean energy transition, create new jobs and investment, protect consumers and businesses from volatile international energy markets, and drive us towards net zero.”
But environmental analysts and politicians rejected the government’s insistence this was a landmark moment for climate and energy policy.
Critics said the lack of joined-up thinking cast serious doubt on the UK’s ability to retain its position as a world leader in renewable energy, pointing to the failure to counter the huge green subsidies on offer from the US, in the form of the $369bn Inflation Reduction Act, and similar support planned by the EU.
Tom Burke, co-founder of the climate think-tank E3G, said: “It’s actually really bad. The incoherence is really transparent.”
Sir Alok Sharma, the backbench MP and former Tory cabinet minister who was president of the UN COP26 climate summit, questioned chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s decision to wait until the autumn to set out any new spending commitments to help the transition to net zero.
“The US, EU and other nations are speeding up and attracting billions and billions right now in public sector investment. Why are we going to wait until the autumn to get a response to that?” he said.
Earlier this week, Hunt criticised US president Joe Biden for leading a “distortive” subsidy regime and insisted Britain would not go “toe to toe” with US and EU subsidies,
“These plans are thin, blinkered and leave us lagging well behind the US and EU in terms of investment for a sustainable and just transition to net zero,” said Dave Reay, executive director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute.
“What was billed with huge hype as the government’s ‘green day’ turns out to be a weak and feeble groundhog day of re-announcements,” said Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow climate change secretary.
As part of Thursday’s package, the government unveiled numerous consultations ranging from electric car sales targets to the market for carbon credits. There was also support for controversial hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, a recommitment to offshore wind, solar and nuclear and an extension of grants for households installing heat pumps.
“But there are gaps,” said Nina Foster, manager of the net zero intelligence unit at the Carbon Trust, a London-based non-profit climate consultancy. “This is a power strategy. And net zero covers more than that.”
Several critics questioned the focus on nascent, expensive and long-dated technologies such as CCS, and the relative lack of interest in solutions that could be rolled out more quickly. These include insulating homes and building more onshore wind, which is still subject to a de facto ban, although the government has committed to allowing projects to be built that have local support.
Richard Cochrane, associate professor in renewable energy at the University of Exeter, said: “The government still has not understood the priorities and urgency here. Onshore wind is the cheapest and quickest option.”
Others, however, welcomed the government’s strategy. Chris Hayward, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, said the government’s green finance strategy, which outlined measures around ESG ratings, corporate transition plans and “investment road maps”, would “help position the UK at the forefront of international innovation and trade.”
The UK may have a more detailed strategy compared to that of many other countries but several government watchdogs, including the National Audit Office, have warned repeatedly it is failing to deliver on its policies to meet its targets.
This lack of implementation raises questions about the government’s calculations on how close it can get to meeting its emission targets in 2030 and 2037.
“At the sectoral level, when you look at the detail, it begins to fall apart,” said Ed Matthew, campaign director at E3G, pointing to factors such as the slow progress on rolling out heat pumps. To respond to last year’s legal challenge, the government “had to show they were on track . . . They are admitting they are not,” he added.
In the document outlining its calculations, the government said it was “confident” that as yet unquantified emissions cuts from existing policies would “largely close” the gap on the 2030 target.
Mike Childs, head of policy at Friends of the Earth, one of the parties that brought last year’s court action, said it was “deeply troubling” that the plans did not add up to the cuts needed. The group was scrutinising the documents “very closely”, he added, and was “ready to take legal action again” if necessary.
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