The fact that Lord Debden has had to start his foreword to the Committee on Climate Change: Reducing UK Emissions: Progress Report to Parliament, June 2020 by repeating his call from the 2019 report: "now, do it" and adding the plea: "…but with a new determination", sets the tone for the 2020 report.
Naturally, Covid-19 has affected the level of ambition and, more importantly, the concrete steps that have actually been taken in the last 12 months. However, government, society and business are in large part aligned more than ever before that the need to tackle the climate crisis remains humanity's greatest long-term challenge. Now is the time for bold, innovative and co-ordinated actions to stimulate a green recovery that can be a fitting legacy of the human and economic destruction Covid-19 has wrought.
Global carbon emissions are forecast to have fallen by up to 10% in 2020. This fall is temporary and inextricably linked to Covid-19. The 2020 report is encouraging as it sets out a clear vision for a sustainable long-term economic recovery that accelerates the shift to a low carbon economy. It will be essential that planned infrastructure investment includes support for climate resilience, alongside low carbon assets such as renewables and carbon capture, utilisation and storage projects. It is easy to forget that we have just suffered one of the wettest winters on record, and that flood and coastal defences are essential investments to protect against an increasingly unpredictable climate. The economic stimulus being planned should also be in some way conditional on compliance with the UK's climate goals.
The 2020 report sets out promising suggestions for every government department to embrace the challenge. It calls on the cabinet committee set up to lead this co-ordination to be more effective. This has to be a fair criticism – the committee didn't meet for five months after its creation. Two key policy tools are proposed:
- Public money must not support industrial sectors that are not part of the future 'net zero' economy.
- Carbon taxation ought to be part of the toolkit to start forcing behavioural change in business – such tax having much less consumer impact when we are seeing such historically low power prices.
The COP 26 climate summit has been delayed by 12 months to November 2021, but the UK is still chairing it. This gives the country the chance to differentiate itself on the global stage as the leader of the fightback against the climate emergency and to globally co-ordinate the policy and regulatory response.
The Prime Minister must not pass up this golden opportunity as his attention is called to other issues. The cross-government focus in the preparation for the COP must build now to ensure we are associated with success. The 2020 report notes the UK has the chance to be the leader in providing a stable, predictable carbon price and. It can also be the innovator in creating the instruments needed to incentivise the massive private sector capital wall shifting into the low and zero carbon economy.
Must try harder
The 2020 Report is critical, rightly, that in the 12 months since the government enshrined its net zero target in law, there has not been the progress in policy and implementation that the Climate Change Committee called for last year. During that time, there has been a wide range of high level, aspirational government announcements across many sectors (indeed, it is hard to keep up with them as they are almost daily occurrences). However, the detail of the legislation and regulation needed to actually implement policy has been lacking. This hampers the drive to meet the net zero challenge as change cannot occur without the legal framework to compel it.
There are always going to be excuses: Brexit, Covid-19, the ensuing recession. The decarbonisation challenge will remain and will exceed all other things in size, cost and long-term effect on humanity and the health of the planet.
Focus for the year ahead
The 2020 report calls on the government to focus its efforts on the following areas over the next 12 months :
- Developing a Buildings and Heat Strategy that should focus on: accelerating building and retrofitting energy efficiency into all buildings; providing a pathway to the electrification of heating systems; and investigating the role of hydrogen in the future heat networks.
- Building on the Transport Decarbonisation Plan to roll-out a cogent plan for the decarbonisation of transport in the UK. This would include wider subsidised roll-out of EV charging infrastructure; reducing vehicle emissions prior to banning petrol and diesel powered vehicles; and supporting the role of hydrogen and bio-methane in fuel solutions.
- Expanding the prevalence of low-carbon power on the UK system and to support the roll-out of flexible grid balancing systems and tools to address intermittency risk. It is hoped the Treasury's Net Zero Review will feed into the build of these mechanisms as fresh cash will be needed as part of the package of incentives.
- Showing leadership and encouragement to industry moving to low carbon technologies and supply chains. The 2020 Report suggest the need for the incentive regimes and the UK ETS to be even more ambitious and ready for roll-out on an accelerated basis – the Brexit outturn will affect the stimulus that can be put in place – particularly the landing on the so called 'level playing field'.
- Recognising the role the agricultural and food-supply sectors can play. The sectors have an important part in the resilience and sustainability of food production and supply, flood protection action, increasing biodiversity, and natural carbon storage through tree planting.
The 2020 report is an extremely thoughtful, encouraging and positive statement of intent. The challenge for the government is to engage with it and ensure the UK is the global leader in decarbonisation. I get a feeling we are all up for the challenge.