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Net zero is too important to be left to Whitehall

The path ahead is tough, but the government’s record is not promising

By Meg Hillier MP

When parliament legislated in June 2019 that the UK would achieve net zero in carbon emissions by 2050 it was heralded as groundbreaking.

But three years on the UK cannot rest on its laurels. Passing a law and delivering are worlds apart. The public accounts committee has been shining a light on the reality of the path to net zero over the past year – scrutinising the move to zero-emission vehicles, green taxation and plans to improve the environment.

The political and economic pressures of rising energy prices, war in Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis add to the sheer scale of the challenge.

In October 2021, the government published its overarching Net Zero Strategy. It also published related documents including its Heat and Buildings Strategy, Net Zero Research and Innovation Framework, and the Treasury’s Net Zero Review. The overarching strategy is government’s most comprehensive articulation to date of its long-term plan for transitioning to a net-zero economy. It sets out scenarios of net-zero power use and technology in 2050 and sets an interim emissions target for the period 2033 to 2037.

Further flesh on the bones of the climate commitment is welcome. But it also underlines the challenge ahead and how little progress the UK was making before and since the net-zero target was enshrined in law.

Transitioning to net zero is tough and will involve some tough (and sometimes unpopular) decisions. To pretend otherwise is to duck responsibility.

The Johnson government is government by cliché and soundbite (three-word slogans in particular). On climate change we repeatedly see headlines but a lack of planning for delivery. The scenarios and models unveiled in the government’s strategies demonstrate the uncertainty inherent in a long pathway with an end state nearly three decades from now. The road to net zero is not a simple linear route. Many policies are interdependent. When the Treasury talks about “heroic assumptions” in the cost estimates from the Climate Change Committee, we know there is still a battle raging in the heart of government about how net zero will be funded and delivered. Of the documents published in October, the Treasury review is pivotal.

The government is pinning a lot of hope in private sector investment in research and development, upskilling existing workforces and providing more jobs. This investment is key to spurring technical innovations and driving down the costs of transition for both government and consumers. But businesses need confidence that a policy direction is long term in order to invest in the technical revolution the government is relying on. However, too often we have seen a stop-start approach from government over the years. Whether it’s green homes projects (the most recent Green Homes Grant project failed and was quickly withdrawn) or feed-in tariffs for solar, or three failed carbon capture and storage competitions, we have too often seen government change tack at a pace that undermines investor and consumer confidence.

Consumers also have a significant role in making the choices that will reduce carbon emissions. But consumer choice is driven not just by the desire to do the right thing– even those most committed to making greener personal choices will be affected by price and ease of transition.

The cost of greening our aged housing stock is a clear example. Heat pumps are being heralded as a solution, but for many, even at the point where it’s time to replace a boiler, there are barriers: listed buildings, flats and cost. Small sweeteners in terms of grants may not be enough for households where money is tight. And going green cannot be a preserve of those with the means to pay personally for transition.

In the public accounts committee’s previous report on low-emission vehicles, we concluded that the commitment to end the production of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 was not enough. Infrastructure and, crucially, convenience were critical. Leaving all this to the market sounds easy, but for something as geographically widespread as car charging points that market has to deliver consistently across the UK. There is a role for government to ensure no region is left aside, but – Covid interventions aside – this government does not have a desire for big state interventions.

Too often decisions in Whitehall do not factor in the reality of consumer behaviour. The Green Deal (which collapsed in 2015) added a charge to energy bills to pay for green measures. But the prospect of trying to sell a home with a 20-year charge on it was not appealing. Predictably, it failed, with only 14,000 households taken it up at a cost, to the taxpayer, of £17,000 per household.

The government now has a target of installing 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. The cost to consumers of these products can be high, although government is confident that this will change, and the cost of a heat pump will be lower by 2035 than the cost of a gas boiler.

Local government has had a strong track record in delivering local green initiatives. Councils are closer to their communities than Whitehall can ever be and government needs to give them a stronger role.

Delivering net zero cannot be about warm words and greenwashing. It needs concerted effort. The government needs to persuade people there is a plan to make the change possible and embed it in business as usual for all aspects of our lives.

There are only 28 years to 2050. The public accounts committee routinely looks at large project delivery. Delivering net zero involves a number of major strategic projects: greener energy, travel, housing and lifestyles. Below these there are infrastructure projects, long-term planning for changes in all sectors and a huge task in building confidence. Now is a time for action from government and delivering on the detail. We don’t need more headlines.

Dame Meg Hillier MP is the chair of the public accounts committee

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