Net zero policy in the UK has hit a new low.
Before the cries of indignation – yes, it is true that the UK once had a record to be proud of.
We were the first advanced economy to commit to net zero by 2050, our economy has grown by 65% whilst emissions reduced by 48% since 1990, and there was much fanfare at COP26 with the UK's headline pledge to reduce emissions by at least 68% by 2030.
But 2030 is just seven years away and the UK now sounds like an aged rockstar on the world stage no longer able to hit its notes.
The world has moved on. The unequivocal message from outgoing Climate Change Committee Chair Lord Deben is that failure to act decisively over the energy crisis means that Government has lost the clear global leadership it once held.
"Our confidence in the UK achieving its 2030 target which we praised for its ambition and upon which the UK's international reputation hangs has materially reduced in the last year."
The stark reality – and we all know it – is that Government has been posted missing. Where is the UK's much needed industrial strategy? In the global race for the new green industries, we are being outpaced and outsmarted by the US, the EU and China. Frustration in the business community is palpable. Government is failing to provide the urgently needed policy plans, incentives and leadership that would trigger the investment in essential green infrastructure and business.
Surface transport presents big challenges. As the highest emitting sector, it contributes 23% of total UK emissions. At our recent roundtable discussion Delivering Net Zero Road Transport, it was noted that it is important to acknowledge that the EV roll out has been a success so far, even though there remain significant implementation challenges. EV cars sales are ahead of projections. However, urgent focus is now needed on vans, trucks, renewable fuels and crucially on demand measures and traffic reduction.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) didn't hold back in its recent Progress Report. When comparing the Net Zero Strategy with the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan, the most significant change is an increase in emissions from surface transport. Looking ahead to 2030 and beyond, they conclude, "we have gone backwards". CCC put this down to two key factors: increased emissions from plug-in hybrids and the fact that Government has chosen not to include an estimate of emissions savings that could be achieved by reducing traffic.
For those of us in the transport sector there is a responsibility to speak out. Most of the policies that aim to support and incentivize the public to choose lower carbon modes of transport have been removed from the quantified pathway. Government is doubling down on a technology led approach that over the past 30 years has delivered very little progress. The situation is now set to get worse. Under all scenarios traffic will grow. As one participant at our roundtable put it:
"There isn't an electrification pathway combined with traffic growth that is consistent with the Sixth Carbon Budget. Government's response is to downgrade the ambition for transport. Are we okay with that?"
Let's be clear, this is a political choice. Never mind the fact that a pathway that is almost exclusively technology dependent is likely to be less cost effective, have higher delivery risks and miss out on co-benefits such as cleaner air, better health and reducing congestion. Government is fixated on not "antagonising motorists". This is in notable contrast to the devolved administrations, all of whom have traffic reduction targets.
It is particularly frustrating that this doubling down on a technology driven approach comes at a very time when lower demand for car travel post pandemic appears to have reached a "settled state" and could provide the foundation for longer term sustainable changes, if only Government could be willing to grasp the opportunities on offer. As things stand, the reverse seems more likely with demand recovery in public transport still at only 80%-90% of pre-pandemic levels, and, worryingly, at significantly lower levels than car travel.
If Government is to quadruple emissions reductions over the rest of this decade, which CCC say is necessary, demand side measures are urgently needed. That means less car use, flying and consumption of carbon intensive food, products and services. However, there is no plan for any of that. Government is relying on technological solutions that have not been deployed at scale, or are even unproven, in preference to encouraging people to reduce high carbon activities. As the CCC's CEO Chris Stark concludes:
"We are worried about the inertia. What is missing is the political leadership... Until that happens, this programme is going to run into the ground."
We can berate Government – and of course political leadership is badly needed – but responsibility rests on society as well. When will it be a no-brainer politically for Government to make the necessary hard choices?
Climate change is an existential threat which to varying extents we have become strangely accustomed to living with. 2022 was our hottest summer on record, with an unprecedented number of heat-related deaths, wildfires and infrastructure disruptions. 2023 looks set to be still worse. Are we doomed to be the proverbial frog that doesn't realise it is being boiled alive until it's too late to jump out?
Global emissions need to be reduced by 43% by 2030 and the IPCC's final synthesis report in March highlighted just how far off track the world is. Steeper emissions cuts will be required across all sectors to avert a future dominated by catastrophic heatwaves, droughts, floods and tropical cyclones. The IPCC has called for the "mainstreaming of climate action across society."
What is to be done? Incremental changes won't cut it anymore. We need a reboot of our whole approach.
Over the summer I will be running an inquiry, investigating where decision making on tackling the climate crisis has become flawed and how our thinking needs to change. This needs to start with an honest appraisal of how we look at the problem.
Greener Vision: A Consultation is published today. If you would like more information https://greener-vision.com/insight/greener-vision-a-consultation/
For a full write up of the roundtable discussion Delivering Net Zero Road Transport visit https://greener-vision.com/publication/pathways-to-net-zero-delivering-net-zero-road-transport-june-2023/