‘Asleep at the wheel’: Ministers risk missing ‘small window’ to decarbonise power in time, says CCC

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has warned that the UK risks falling behind its competitors and missing its 2035 target to decarbonise the power network, calling for a rapid overhaul of the planning system and regulations to boost renewables.

A new report from the watchdog, Delivering a reliable decarbonised power system, emphasises the importance of achieving the 2035 goal “at pace” and uses detailed modelling to show what the 2035 power system might look like and makes 25 recommendations on how to get there.

It highlights the huge challenge facing the government in achieving its energy targets - for example it notes that five times the amount of transmission infrastructure built in the last 30 years will have to be constructed in the next seven for the government to reach its target of up to 50 GW of offshore wind by 2030.

READ MORE: Is the UK’s power network ready for net zero?

The report also emphasises that alongside the commitments on  renewables and nuclear, as set out in the government’s recent Energy Security Strategy, hydrogen will need a huge boost as low carbon back-up generation will be needed as will new storage solutions, beyond batteries.

The modelling highlights that fossil fuels will still make up part of the energy for the grid in 2035, which will require the development of carbon capture and storage technology.

Speaking at a briefing ahead of the publication of the report, CCC chief executive Chris Stark said decarbonisation is “absolutely central to the goal of net zero and central I think to the health of the economy over the coming years”. However, he was not confident the 2035 goal would be reached. 

He said that the system is currently “not set up to deliver that kind of scale or ambition”, but that the recommendations from the report could “put the country back on track”.

Stark also noted that with the deadline for the government to publish its revised net zero strategy coming up at the end of the month, after losing a legal challenge over how it quantified its targets, and with the spring budget due next week: “There's a very, very small window now for this to happen”.

“It feels like we're making out lost ground really for a lost year in British politics. When we weren’t talking about these important issues,” he continued.

Labour have put forward plans to decarbonise the power system by 2030, five years ahead of the current government’s target, which Stark said would be a challenge to achieve.

When asked by ENDS whether it is now a ‘waiting game’ until the next election for the policy changes recommended, for example to remove barriers from the planning system, he said that would be an “enormous mistake”.

“My worry is that, collectively, we start looking forward to the next general election as the point when you can introduce those policies, and actually it will be too late.”

“There is a really important need to signal to the wider world, to the investor community, to global companies that have choices about where they put their capital, that we are responding in the right way to this crisis, and that we have still got good plans in place to deliver goals like the 2035 power target.”

Lord Deben, chair of the CCC, pointed out that the committee has been calling for faster action on decarbonising British electricity for 15 years, but “now there is more at stake”.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought home the fundamental importance of energy security,” he said. “A reliable energy system based mainly on the UK’s plentiful renewable resources now has new significance".

Deben accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” and said an overhaul of the planning system and regulations is needed fast.

He continued: “Countries around the world are now racing for this goal. The UK is further ahead than most, but we risk losing our early lead at the worst possible time.”

Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, said: “This is a damning assessment of government progress on building a secure, homegrown and green energy system.

“Ministers must up their game if the UK is to deliver on legally binding carbon reduction targets and provide householders and businesses with clean, affordable energy.

“They should start by rapidly removing the barriers to onshore wind, cranking-up the development of offshore wind and reforming the unfair windfall tax on renewable energy companies which will drive investors overseas.”

This report comes just over a week after the National Audit Committee published its own report on decarbonisation raising concerns that the 2035 goal is currently out of reach as the recently established department for energy security and net zero (DESNZ), led by Grant Shapps, has not made enough progress on a plan.

A DESNZ spokesperson said:  “The UK is a world-leader in efforts to reach net zero and we have a laser-like focus on maintaining that position.

“Already we are decarbonising faster than any other G7 country, while low-carbon sources like renewables and nuclear provide half of our total UK energy generation.

“But we are also investing in the new technologies of the future, rapidly progressing developments in Carbon Capture and Storage, alongside being the first government in decades to invest in nuclear energy which will be critical to energy security and making energy more affordable.”