‘A huge let down’: UK still has 50% chance of missing sixth carbon budget under Net Zero Strategy

The government is facing criticism after it emerged that under its landmark Net Zero Strategy published yesterday the UK has an approximately 50% chance of breaching legal carbon levels in 2035.

The much-anticipated Net Zero Strategy presents an overarching plan not only for how the UK will decarbonise by 2050 but also achieve a 68% cut in emissions by 2030 and a 78% cut by 2035 under the Sixth Carbon Budget.

However, according to the government's own figures contained in the technical annex of the strategy, its central projection for emissions comes to 962 MtCO2e a year, which is just short of the 963 legal limit. 

Labour said the plan had been “torpedoed by the Treasury” which it said had “once again failed to recognise that the prudent, responsible choice is to sufficiently invest in a green transition”.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said: “Homeowners are left to face the costs of insulation on their own, industries like steel and hydrogen are left hobbled in the global race without the support they need, and the government cannot even confirm they will meet their climate target for 2035.”

The 2035 target, known as the Sixth Carbon Budget, sets into law a target to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels.

It was agreed in April in line with recommendations from the independent government advisors, the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

The CCC said it would publish a fuller assessment of the Net Zero Strategy in the coming days, but added that the strategy provided “much more clarity about what lies ahead for businesses and individuals and the key actions required in the coming decades to deliver a net zero nation”.

Chris Stark, the CCC’s chief executive, said: “We didn’t have a plan before, now we do.” 

However, there was criticism from many quarters.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) labeled the strategy “a huge let down”.

Its general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “The government has failed to implement many of the main recommendations of its own green jobs taskforce - just two weeks before it hosts the UN climate change conference. That’s not the way to show global leadership - it’s self-sabotage.”

“Today’s spending commitments will do little to address the yawning investment gap needed to get British industry ready for net-zero,” he added. 

Scientists were also critical with Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, tweeting: “We need action to cut CO2 not more PR.”

Anderson said that if the prime minister Boris Johnson “was serious about responding to the 'climate emergency', he should make a number of policy changes including an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel developments”.

There was also criticism of the strategy’s commitment to support and make a final investment decision for a new large scale nuclear reactor by the end of this parliament; and a new £120m fund for small modular reactors.

Climate think tank E3G argued that scaling up alternative options such as enabling energy system flexibility “may present a better return on investment”. It noted that the government has also not yet stated how it may be possible to mitigate adverse environmental impacts from nuclear power generation.

Other organisations including the Aldersgate Group welcomed the strategy as a marker of the “clear overall direction for the UK economy”.

However, Aldersgate Group executive director Nick Mohlo, added: “There are a number of areas where further policy clarity is required to put the UK on course to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget. These include putting in place clear regulatory targets and fiscal incentives to drive investment in energy efficiency retrofits, which is essential to ensure a cost-effective roll-out of low carbon heating, lower household energy bills, and reduce demand on the UK’s power grid.”   

BEIS said Miliband’s point - that the net zero strategy does not confirm the government will meet its Sixth Carbon Budget - was “wrong”. While noting that the country had met previous carbon budgets, it did not offer an explanation as to why his reasoning was incorrect.