There’s no escaping the toll the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had on the world and will have for years to come. But the Committee on Climate Change is today steadfast in its appeal that from the pandemic can arise opportunity, and all that’s required is for government to grasp it.
Today’s progress report – meant to assess the government’s annual progress against climate targets – is unlike any other that precedes it. A substantial document for unprecedented times. It’s 196 pages of detailed assessment and evidence-based advice, including the significant addition of department-specific policy wants. It could easily be interpreted as a near step-by-step guide to rebuilding a greener, more resilient economy.
The context to it, however, is stark. The Committee’s chief executive Chris Stark is honest in his appraisal that the year since 2019’s progress update was “not quite the year we ordered”. Indeed, included within this year’s update is a list of 31 high-priority tasks that were issued in 2019. Of those, only two have been met in full. A further 15 have been partially met, indicating the size of the job still at hand.
The report is clear in its praise for the power sector, which has undergone a “remarkable” transformation. But for too long has the government relied on the proliferation of renewables and wider power sector decarbonisation to have met interim targets. There has been “marginal progress at best” in emissions reductions from other sectors of the economy, Stark said, and now housing retrofits have shot up the priority list to be the top ‘want’ for the government’s watchdog.
Rumours of a significant investment in energy efficiency retrofits in chancellor Rishi Sunak’s forthcoming emergency budget have done little to assuage Lord Deben, the Committee’s chair, who can hardly contain his exasperation that since the CCC first called for zero carbon homes policy in 2008, more than 1 million homes have been built in the UK that are now not fit for purpose.
A decade of lost action, with residents of those homes consuming more energy – and paying more for it – than they should have done. The cull of the Zero Carbon Homes policy in 2015 has long since been considered one of the worst legislative decisions of that Conservative government, and it’s now down to future governments to resolve that issue.
And it’s for that precise reason that this progress update, whilst buoyant at the potential for this crisis to trigger true change, remains almost laced with regret. The built environment could have been addressed nearly a decade ago, and established renewables could have enjoyed years of support, and recorded even lower prices than they look set to next year, were it not for the decision to bar them from future CfD auctions, once again a decision taken in 2015. The warnings signs were there, the necessary remedies on the table for all to see and yet, prevarication could well cost us dearly.
Those in the industry who’ve monitored the CCC’s communications to government over the years will have already noted the change in tone of late. In the five years I’ve been covering the sector, progress reports and other updates have undergone a transition of their own, going from ‘polite, gentle reminder’ to ‘impassioned plea’, leading up to last year’s ‘get on with it’.
This year’s message has changed again, but is shaped by a pandemic and subsequent economic shock. The Committee has put it bluntly to the government; there will be no better opportunity than now to deliver the systemic change needed to put the country on the path to net zero. This is a once in a generation opportunity to save generations.
Speaking to journalists yesterday, Lord Deben insisted the window of opportunity that presents itself now will not last forever. The nettle needs to be grasped as rapidly as possible, and well-meaning statements simply will not do. Rhetoric must be matched with policy, and that policy cannot be caught in the kind of mire that has hindered so much of the legislative pipeline in recent years.
The long-awaited energy white paper – first teased by then-energy secretary Greg Clark in November 2018 – serves as a prime example of that. First prepped for release in 2019, Tory leadership competitions, general elections, subsequent reshuffles and a plethora of other political roadblocks have meant the document, which is supposed to set the path for further decarbonisation of the power sector, has yet to see the light of day. It was earmarked for release this Spring, but now looks set for an even lengthier delay.
Lord Deben insisted yesterday that the government cannot hide behind such delays and must, as a matter of urgency, recognise that it can make decisions and pass policy in spite of the white paper’s absence. It must not use those delays as an excuse not to bring forward policies capable of delivering real change, a notion which, in truth, must resonate across government.
The CCC is absolutely right – there will be no greater opportunity than this to change course. The government has all the tools and all the support, but a shrinking window of opportunity. As the CCC today says, all that’s required now is for the government to just go for it.