Government infrastructure advisers reveal net zero unknowns

There are a number of unanswered questions around how the UK will decarbonise its economy, and how these changes will be funded, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has said.

In its baseline report published today, the independent government advisers said there were questions over how to define the limits of heat pumps for home heating, the role of hydrogen in heat and the future of the gas grid and exploring ways of reducing congestion and future demand on roads.

The NIC is responsible for drawing up a national infrastructure assessment once in every parliament. The NIC said identifying the infrastructure needed for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage to decarbonise parts of the economy will form the priorities in its next landmark assessment due in 2023.

Improving recycling rates and the long term investment needs for surface transport within and between cities and towns will also be priorities, the NIC said

Speaking at the launch of the report today, Sir John Armitt said: “These reports matter. The government is duty bound to respond to these recommendations.

Armitt noted that 70-80% of its recommendations in its inaugural report were accepted by the government.

But he said today’s baseline report, which surveys the current state of the digital, energy, flood resilience, water and wastewater, waste and transport sectors, painted “a mixed picture of UK infrastructure”.

For example, Armitt said there had been “major strides” in decarbonising electricity generation, with around 40% of electricity generated from renewable sources but that there had been “limited progress so far on the transition to low carbon heating for homes, with a ‘stop start’ approach to energy efficiency policy”.

Armitt added that serious pollution incidents from water and sewerage have plateaued since 2014 at “an unacceptably high level”

There are also uncertainties surrounding how the net zero transition will be funded, according to the NIC.

The report states that reaching net zero will require “high levels of investment, both to decarbonise existing infrastructure networks and to build new ones... the investment will ultimately need to be funded by consumers or taxpayers”. 

The commission will consider funding challenges in the second assessment, “including the overall affordability of required investment, the distributions of costs and savings across groups in society, and who should pay,” the report stated. 

The first assessment, published in 2018, led to the government publishing the UK’s first ever National Infrastructure Strategy, which committed to implementing the majority of the Commission’s recommendations including the creation of the UK Infrastructure Bank.