Strategy vacuum leaves net zero ambitions open to attack, warns government adviser

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s failure to set out a strategy on how the UK will reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 has left a space for climate sceptics to “attack and undermine” the government's target, Lord Deben, the chair of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has said.

Deben said it was a problem that the government’s overall work on net zero had not yet appeared, although he acknowledged that the work was complex. Photograph: ENDS Report

In an interview with the Guardian, Deben, who is a Conservative peer as well as chair of the independent government advisers the CCC, also said the UK needed to show “proper leadership” ahead of COP26. 

The comments came in the week after it emerged Tory MPs were planning to set up a new backbench group aimed at questioning the Westminster “consensus” on the need to urgently curb greenhouse gas emissions.

According to reports, the group does not intend to deny climate science, but will want to highlight the anticipated costs associated with meeting the government’s 2050 net zero targets, and ask for more transparency over the data being used to drive the decisions. 

Deben said critics of the net zero policy had been vocal in the public debate because “it hasn’t been put into context by the government”.

The government is still to publish a roadmap of policies, a Treasury review of costs and some of its sectoral strategies. It was revealed the Treasury review had been delayed earlier this month due to disagreements between chancellor Rishi Sunak and Johnson. These are now expected in September, just two months before the UN talks in Glasgow. 

Deben said it was a problem that the government’s overall work on net zero had not yet appeared, although he acknowledged that the work was complex.

“The problem is that because that is very late, because it was supposed to be done very much earlier, of course it’s given every opportunity for everybody who wants to complain, to attack, to undermine what has to be done and to make a great fuss about the various costs.”

He added: “Boris Johnson has done some remarkable things in the sense that he has clearly signed up to the toughest targets of any country in the world. But the problem for this government is that having done that, we still haven’t seen the delivery programme.”

While Deben said Johnson should take credit for sticking to the net zero policy adopted by his predecessor Theresa May and praised the government’s preparations for the COP26 summit, he noted that there had been a “fundamental problem” for Sharma to persuade developing countries to sign up to steep emissions cuts when the UK had cut the foreign aid budget. “It was a very serious mistake to cut back on overseas aid,” he said, which had made it “very much more difficult” for Sharma in his negotiations.

In addition, added Deben: “Other countries would be much more willing to recognise that this is proper leadership if they see a programme in detail, but we haven’t committed ourselves to that.”