Is the road to net zero paved with good intentions?

The UK government’s long-awaited Net Zero Strategy runs to 367 pages. But is it just ‘blah, blah, blah’ or actually quite good?

The net zero strategy contains some gaps, say critics. Photograph: Dave G Kelly/Getty Images

That is the question policy experts, campaigners, scientists, advisors, the media and politicians have been mulling since the document was published a little over two weeks ago. (And let’s not forget there were the accompanying Heat and Buildings Strategy, Net Zero Review, and the Greening Finance roadmap to unpick too).

The initial response seems to be that it is pretty good but there is room for improvement. “It shows crucial leadership ahead of COP26 and sets a clear direction for climate and environmental policy in the coming years,” said Ana Musat, head of policy at the Aldersgate Group.

Promises versus plans

Still, the publication of a plan – setting out for the first time how the government intends to halve UK emissions in a little over a decade and eliminate them by 2050 – is undoubtedly a pivotal point in climate policy, both here and internationally. 

Research published in Nature Climate Change in September showed that 131 countries, covering 72% of global emissions, are discussing, have announced or have adopted net zero targets. Taken together these pledges could limit temperature rises to 2.0-2.4°C, bringing the Paris Agreement goal into the realm of the possible, the authors suggested.

But they warned that these promises and “good intentions” to hit a target in the long term have to be backed by robust plans for reducing emissions in the near term. Do that and all of a sudden 1.9°C or 2°C becomes possible, though the target must remain 1.5°C. 

What the UK government has done with its new net zero tome is drag an ambition for 2050 into the present day. As the Climate Change Committee (CCC) noted last week, the core objective for a fully decarbonised power sector by 2035, with electrification, supported by low-carbon hydrogen, leading to a phase-out of fossil fuels from surface transport, home heating and much of industry now begins “without delay”.

Policy push

CCC chairman Lord Deben was among those who had become increasingly twitchy as COP26 approached and a strategy failed to materialise. It was worth the wait, he suggested: the strategy marked a “genuine step forward” he said last week after publishing a more detailed appraisal. In the main this was positive, with the strategy’s ambitions aligning with legally binding targets of net zero by 2050 and a 78% reduction from 1990 to 2035, known as the Sixth Carbon Budget.

The committee’s assessment talks of “credible mechanisms to drive delivery” and a much-needed sector-based approach to net zero. Plans for power, transport, buildings, industry, agriculture and land use, as the highest emitting sectors, have been presented. It is a far cry from the Clean Growth strategy of 2017. “The sectoral pathways were missing so it’s good to have them,” Musat told ENDS.

From 2025 to 2035, the government’s plan is broadly aligned with the CCC’s recommendations. For example, fully decarbonised electricity by 2035, 40GW of offshore wind by 2030 and 30,000 hectares of tree planting by 2025. The government expects faster emissions reductions in buildings but falls “5-6MtCO2e short” on the committee’s pathway for the fuel supply sector.

Given the scale of the challenge and distant target, a rigid roadmap to net zero is impossible. Still, some critics spy significant flaws. Tom Sasse, associate director at the Institute for Government, noted that the strategy is “impressive in breaking new ground” but there are “major holes and optimistic assumptions; many questions about how all of it can be delivered go unanswered”.

Holes and hyperbole

One of the biggest gaps relates to agriculture. The government’s pathway to 2037 “assumes emissions will be reduced through improved and innovative farming practices”. There is also a vague nod to support for “low-carbon farming”. 

Given that recent calculations in Nature Food showed food to be responsible for 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions there is concern the sector is being left behind the other high-emitters like power, heat and transport. “For all its significance, the net-zero strategy is another example of a government that, on the question of food and climate change, still wants to have its beef and eat it,” noted Footprint, a food industry website focused on sustainability.

The idea of changing diets has proved too hard for the government to swallow. The CCC has called for a 20% shift away from dairy and meat by 2030 in order to meet the necessary carbon reductions, but it is nowhere to be seen in those 367 pages. 

Policies to drive behaviour change have been swerved in the new strategy. “We will work with the grain of consumer choice,” is the first of four key principles on which the strategy is based. The notion of net zero being a relatively painless affair is one the government appears keen to cling to. So much so that a paper by the government’s behavioural insights team showing how net zero requires “a significant reduction in demand for some high-carbon activities such as flying and eating ruminant meat and dairy” was deleted from the government’s website on the day the net zero strategy was published.

Bullet for behaviour change

The CCC has calculated that 43% of the cuts on its route to net-zero require a combination of low-carbon technologies and behaviour change; another 16% will come from “largely societal or behaviour changes”. The government appears to be pinning all its hopes to innovation though. “[…] there seems to be an overreliance on technology silver bullets running through the strategy,” noted Aldersgate in a short briefing paper.

Government has promised to invest at least £1.5 billion in a number of emerging technologies, some of which will pan out, others won’t. The creation of “well paid” jobs and “levelling up our country while squashing down our carbon emissions” is very much how this strategy is being sold to Conservative MPs and voters. 

Johnson recently lauded the government’s “Promethean faith in green technology”. He has even joked of changing his name to “Boreas Johnson in honour of the [god of the] North Wind”. Critics point to exploitation of more oil fields, airport expansions and new roads making Dolos, the spirit of trickery, a more apt comparison. “Scour the associated spreadsheets and the numbers reveal a story of subterfuge, delusion, offsetting and piecemeal policies – all dressed up as a shiny new strategy for COP26,” said Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester.

Short changed?

There have also been early criticisms regarding the cash being committed to curbing carbon. The cost of net zero is clearly causing tension between the neighbours at numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street – as well as through the Conservative Party more widely. 

Caterina Brandmayr, head of climate policy at Green Alliance, said the scale of public investment, confirmed in the chancellor’s spending review and budget last week, “fell far short of what is needed to put the country firmly on track for net zero. The chancellor should double down on low carbon public investment,” she added. 

Others noted how the onus is very much on the private sector to invest. Gavin Killip, a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, said “the whole strategy is based on urging the private sector to invest and innovate but without enough of a regulatory framework from government”. 

In printing its new plan to meet net zero the government has opened itself up to further scrutiny. This is welcome. Ministers must also look inwards. “The government may yet need a strong central net zero unit under a powerful cabinet office minister, wrote Sasse.

For now it is Johnson leading the charge. “In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea,” he opined in the strategy’s foreword.

The prime minister set out a very similar vision at a speech to the Conservative Party conference 12 months ago. However, the date he had in mind then was 2030, not 2050. 

A sign, perhaps, that the government is finally realising the scale, cost and at times inconvenience of this challenge.