UK ‘failing to confront the scale of meeting net zero’

Stronger leadership and co-ordination from the prime minister is needed if the UK’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050 is to be credible, according to a report from the Institute for Government.

This report warns that over a year on fromadopting the target – a decision made by Theresa May but which Boris Johnson has endorsed since becoming prime minister – the UK has not yet confronted the scale of the task.

Meeting the commitment is a more difficult challenge than responding to the coronavirus crisis or getting Brexit done, and will require transformations in every sector of the UK economy, sustained investment over three decades, and substantial changes to everyone’s lives.

The report says a lack of co-ordinated policies, constant changes of direction, a failure to gain public consent for measures and too little engineering expertise and delivery capability has left the UK well off track to meet its target. The absence of a comprehensive plan for achieving net zero has deterred private sector investment and left people unsure of how to act.

It calls on government to publish a clear plan setting out, sector by sector, how emissions reductions will be achieved and when decisions will be made where technology is uncertain. The Cabinet Office should be made responsible for co-ordinating the plan and holding departments to account for delivery.

Polling suggests two-thirds of people have not heard of net zero, despite the fact that it will mean changing the way they heat their homes, the cars they drive and what they eat. The government should build on parliament’s climate assembly initiative and level with the public on the changes net zero will require.

The government needs to work out how to pay for the shift to a carbon-neutral economy – estimated at 1–2 per cent of GDP per year – and how to ensure costs are distributed fairly. It should also renew its focus on preparing for the impacts of a changing climate, such as increased flooding and heatwaves. 

If the UK fails to show that it is serious about its climate change targets, it risks wasting a golden opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the fight against climate change when it hosts next year’s rescheduled COP26 summit.

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