Can the government make good on its 78% emissions cut pledge?

The government needs “far greater policy coherence and consistency” if it is to meet its target of a 78% cut in carbon emissions by 2035, policy experts have said, as they wait for a detailed strategy to be published.

Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

Upgraded from a 68% cut by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, the government aims to enshrine the new target in law by the end of June and a detailed plan is expected before COP26 in November. Though ambitious, the new target was announced less than a month after the government scrapped the Green Homes Grant, which has damaged confidence in the sector.

“This was a great initiative, but it was stopped and we just can’t go on like that,” said Harriet Lamb, the chief executive officer of climate change charity Ashden. “If we’re going to green our housing stock we need to upgrade a million homes every year. Research shows that we would need about 36,000 trained retrofit coordinators if we’re going to tackle that problem. Today, guess how many we have? 500.”

The Federation of Master Builders welcomed the new target but said the building industry needs a national retrofit strategy like the one put forward by the Construction Leadership Council, which has asked the government to help create 500,000 new professionals and trades.

“The really big issue is about having a logical consistency and coherence in approach which doesn’t send contradictory signals,” said Andrew Simms of the Rapid Transition Alliance. “There’s no point training people up if your other policy package is so inconsistent that you’ve destroyed confidence in the very sector that you see as being dependent on delivering your decarbonisation strategies.”

The government has faced criticism for policies that undermine its COP26 leadership, such as cutting overseas aid to countries on the frontline of the climate crisis, allowing new licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration, refusing to block a new coal mine in Cumbria and planning a £27 billion road building programme, although the latter is now under review due to an expected drop in traffic post-pandemic.

One way to help formulate a consistent strategy towards meeting the necessary cuts in carbon emissions could be through citizens’ assemblies, said Lamb – a key feature of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, which has won the support of 107 MPs and 43 local councils.

“There was a citizens’ assembly which came up with fantastic recommendations and quite surprising ones because they’re not hand-picked climate activists, they’re the opposite, a mixture of society with the sceptics all the way through to the passionate. And they came up with really interesting policy proposals, on aviation for example.”

The final report said assembly members supported a need to invest in alternative fuels and for the aviation industry to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, as well as a tax on frequent fliers and reduced growth in the sector.

“In principle, it’s a really good idea to check with the public what they have the appetite for doing most and where they think the priorities are,” said Professor Chris Hilson, an expert in environmental law at the University of Reading.

“Government has always done that to some extent, with focus groups and so on, but citizens’ assemblies are usually more considered and have a more representative quality and have a greater chance for the public to deliberate these things in detail.”

He added that recommendations from citizens’ assemblies should not be legally binding as the power to make decisions on this scale should ultimately rest with elected officials.

When asked how the government can be made accountable for its emissions reductions targets, Hilson said: “Judicial review of these targets by environmental and climate NGOs is possible and you don’t have to wait until 2050 to bring a judicial review claim. You can bring a claim if it looks like the budget isn’t going to be met within the five years.”

This may happen if the aviation and shipping sectors, now included in the government’s target, are unable to transition to low-carbon fuel in time. A Sustainable Aviation spokesperson said low-carbon fuel “is still in early development'' and that Airbus is aiming to develop “the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft” run on hydrogen by 2035 – the year by which the government expects industry-wide emissions cuts of 78%.

This is a ‘net’ target however, and questions remain as to how much the government and difficult-to-decarbonise industries like aviation expect to rely on carbon capture and offsetting, which remains unproven and unreliable.

“The magic words in this debate are demand management and demand reduction,” said Simms. “We’re making the achievement of the target much more difficult by not grasping the inevitability of linking system and behaviour change and looking at demand reduction and management. At best, we’re making things much more difficult and at worst we’re making them impossible.”