The Committee on Climate Change’s seminal net zero report issues perhaps the single largest, non-Brexit challenge to government
Here we have a chance to end the UK’s contribution to climate change, triggering an economic and societal transformation of a scale not witnessed since the industrial revolution.
But only if the government wants to.
The report was published today – or Tuesday if you’re a different media outlet – and very much throws down the gauntlet to HMG. At 256 pages long, the net zero recommendation is a detailed and comprehensive body of work. It’s precise, calculated and bold, whilst simultaneously portraying the need for urgency.
But do not mistake the committee’s clarity for a conciliatory tone. In pointing out the seismic leap that is needed in the current policy framework to achieve the goal, the CCC is delivering a subtle rebuttal of the UK government’s climate action in the last four years.
Low carbon power supply is just one cog in a prospective net zero economy, but it provides a perfect example of what the CCC is getting at. The UK’s renewables capacity has soared since 2010, but drastic cuts to subsidy slammed the brakes on further deployment of the cheapest technologies in wind and solar. The government will point to solar being a “success story” for the UK, but it’s an inescapable fact that policy decisions taken by Conservative governments since 2015 have stymied the industry’s growth.
Yes, subsidies are no longer required for utility-scale solar farms, but the industry has not called for them for years now. Instead, it wants precisely what the net zero report calls for in long term, bankable contracts that would help remove merchant risk from project finance.
But the industry has not been that lucky. Subsidy-free CfD contracts for solar were first mooted more than three years ago by Andrea Leadsom, but the then-energy minister said it was not the kind of policy that “could be done on the back of a fag packet” and would take time. I’m not sure where Leadsom’s buying her cigarettes – she doesn’t seem quite the type for a quick jaunt to Calais – but if her packets are lasting longer than three years then I know a few smokers who’d love to know.
That has been low carbon policy in a nut shell, and the issue has only become exacerbated by Brexit and the associated Westminster resource drain. And yet now, with Brexit still a conundrum without a resolution, the net zero report places considerable importance on government dedicating cross-departmental resource to ensuring that what can be done, is done.
The committee is perfectly clear on this front. Without an escalation of policy, there is simply no point in accepting its recommendation and establishing the net zero by 2050 target in law. To do so would be to take a great leap into the unknown, without any semblance of a clue of how to reach that destination.
Actually, perhaps that is consistent with the current government’s mantra.
Nevertheless, the lack of a suitable policy framework would appear to have irked Lord Deben. Six months ago, during the government’s own Green GB Week, he slammed BEIS’ response to the committee’s 2018 progress report for not being good enough, insisted the government needed a kick up the backside and finished with the quite significant volley that while it wouldn’t be the CCC who’d sue the government over its inaction, he may end up as first witness for the prosecution.
Reminded of those comments this week, Lord Deben said the report “pulled no punches”. “The Committee are clear that a net-zero GHG target should only be adopted by government and parliament if they are serious about implementing the much more ambitious and effective policies that will be required,” he told Current±.
He was perhaps more bullish during a press conference earlier this week, telling a room of journalists that, given the contents of the report, if the government still didn’t legislate to remove GHG emissions by 2050, it was simply because it didn’t want to.
Subtle, yes. But a retort that places the ball firmly in HMG’s court.
The government must now put up or shut up. The UK cannot continue to claim to lead the world in climate action while its own advisers have to caveat critical climate action reports with statements regarding inadequate policy frameworks.
When quizzed on potential time frames, CCC chief exec Chris Stark remarked that if the net zero target is to be established at all, it must be done by the end of the year. Any later than that would throw the committee’s sixth carbon budget formulae out of sync and risk delaying yet another crucial piece of work.
There will be no rowing back from a commitment either. “I do think the world’s changed. I don’t think any government is getting away with saying it’s going to do it and not doing it. Our [annual progress] reports can be used as a means of pressuring them, even… to actually take them to court. I think the circumstances are such that the government, if it commits itself to this, will in fact have real pressure to make sure it delivers.”
In its defence, the government has today appeared willing – if not exactly able – to get the job done. Energy secretary Greg Clark described the report today as “one of the most important publications… around the world” when it came to climate action.
Crucially, Clark said it was the government’s intent for the UK to be the “first major economy to legislate for a net zero emissions target”. Considering that France are expected to legislate for just that in two months’ time, Clark might want to get his skates on.
Clark’s ambition to push through a piece of legislation as critical as this within months is indicative of what’s necessary to meet the overall target. Whether or not he’ll be successful remains to be seen, especially with the sheer scale of the backlog facing Westminster in the coming weeks.
Or not, as the case may be…
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(H/T Carbon Brief’s Simon Evans for the tweet)