The UK government has this week published its long-awaited strategy for reaching net zero emissions — meaning it has set out ways for the country to cut carbon emissions and make the economy greener.
The plan includes commitments for more government investment in electric vehicles and charging points, and grants for people to fit their homes with low-carbon heat pumps to help phase out gas boilers, among other initiatives.
But does it go far enough? In 2019 the UK was one of the first major economies to enshrine its “net zero by 2050” pledge in law, meaning that by 2050 its economy will not add any more carbon to the atmosphere.
That long-term goal is broken down into shorter-term ones. For example, by 2035 the UK aims to have cut carbon emissions by 78% compared with 1990 levels.
In the two years since passing the target into law, however, climate experts have warned that Britain is being too slow at making the changes needed to ward off catastrophic climate change.
The government’s independent climate advisors who make up the Climate Change Committee warned this July that over 200 policy changes were needed across all government departments to get on track to meet the goal. Their recommendations included the need for extensive electrification, particularly of transport and heating, and a 20% reduction in meat and dairy consumption in the UK by 2030.
Here’s what you need to know about what the new strategy says, and what climate campaign groups think about whether it stacks up enough to fulfil Britain’s ambitions to drastically cut emissions.
What Does the Strategy Say?
The Net-Zero: Build Back Greener strategy put forward by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy promises to “seize green economic opportunities” and offers a mix of funding commitments and regulatory changes to do so.
Its focus is on encouraging private investment in the long-term, which the government hopes will outpace public investment, according to the foreword to the report written by business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
Kwarteng writes that the strategy will create “440,000 new jobs and leverage up to £90 billion of private investment” in green industries in the UK by 2030.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote of the strategy: “The UK’s path to ending our contribution to climate change will be paved with well-paid jobs, billions in investment and thriving green industries — powering our green industrial revolution across the country.”
Areas that have been ear-marked for a cash boost include £620 million for grants for electric vehicles and expanding the network of charging points, with a focus on creating more charging points on residential streets. A further £350 million will go towards helping the car industry transition to making electric cars and the electrification of the industry’s supply chains.
At the same time, car-makers will be mandated to sell a certain number of electric vehicles.
Another major area that needs work is buildings and heating — with heating homes and workplaces accounting for almost a third of the UK’s carbon emissions, according to the report.
There will be a new £450 million three-year Boiler Upgrade Scheme that will see households offered grants of up to £5,000 for low-carbon heating systems so they can replace gas boilers.
Meanwhile a £60 million “Heat Pump Ready programme” will be established to develop heat pump technologies. Heat pumps run using electricity — they extract air and warm it up in a concentrated way, then pump it out (kind of like a reverse fridge). The strategy is aiming for 600,000 installations of heat pumps a year by 2028.
In terms of renewable energy power — the strategy aims for the UK to have “fully decarbonised” energy supply by 2035. To do this, a £120 million will go towards a Future Nuclear Enabling Fund to develop the possibility of a future new nuclear power station, while also further expanding offshore wind. The government is also investigating using hydrogen fuel from natural gas to power heavy industry, and is exploring the possibility of sustainable fuel for aeroplanes.
Finally the strategy sets out ways the government will explore developing carbon capture technologies to help draw down carbon from the atmosphere.
There will also be an investment in nature restoration with an extra £625 million for tree-planting and peat restoration.
The strategy had little to say about reducing meat and dairy consumption and other lifestyle changes. One of the four “guiding principles” of the strategy, written out at the start of the report, says: “We will work with the grain of consumer choice: no one will be required to rip out their existing boiler or scrap their current car.”
What Do Climate Groups Say?
The main critique of the strategy from green groups, scientists, and politicians, is that it does not go far enough — offering a start to decarbonising the economy but not enough to limit warming quickly enough.
Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, described the plan as a “massive let down” saying that the planned funding will only be able to help a small number of homes switch from a gas boiler to a heat pump, for example. “We need 600,000 homes a year installing heat pumps by 2028, but they are funding just 30,000 a year,” he said.
Campaigners also say the ideas are undermined by plans to continue with fossil fuel expansion — for example, the government granted a licence for more North Sea oil exploration just earlier this year.
Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth, told the Independent that “it’s the height of hypocrisy” for the government to claim to be leading on climate for the upcoming COP26 summit while still drilling oil.
Speaking to the Guardian, Rebecca Newson, the head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said of the strategy: “This document is more like a pick and mix than the substantial meal that we need to reach net zero. Extra cash for tree planting and progress on electric vehicles doesn’t make up for the lack of concrete plans to deliver renewables at scale, extra investment in public transport, or a firm commitment to end new oil and gas licences.”
Newsom added that the need to look at lifestyle and diet was also key. “It fundamentally fails to grapple with the need to reduce our meat and dairy consumption to stop global deforestation,” she added.
James Murray, the editor of Business Green magazine, which covers the renewables sector, praised the plan as a start, writing: “It is a flawed and incomplete plan, but it is a plan.”
However, he added that, as well as offering less money than what is needed, the plan has “little to say on public engagement, whether it relates to the contentious topics of changing diets and reducing the number of flights, or the simpler need to switch lights off and embrace clean technologies.”
With the UK hosting the next United Nations Climate Change Summit, COP26, just over a week away, it’s vital that the country shows leadership by committing to bold strategies for change.
The world needs to see urgent action from politicians and business leaders and Global Citizens can help by raising their voice. Take action with Global Citizen here to call on world leaders to mitigate climate change by cutting emissions to reach net zero, and adapt to climate change by supporting developing nations with much needed climate financing.