Critics say The Government’s Net Zero Plan Falls Short of What Is Needed

The UK government has finally revealed its net zero strategy just in time for COP26, the United Nations Climate Change conference in Glasgow. The government has set out its policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy in a bid to meet its aim of net zero by 2050.

Ministers say that the plan will create 440,000 jobs and “unlock” £90bn in investment in the next decade, most of it from private sector companies. The Net Zero review which was published at the same time by the Treasury says “the costs of global inaction significantly outweigh the costs of action” to tackle climate change. Despite this, experts and campaigners have warned that the UK’s current strategy falls short on ambition and is not backed up with adequate funding.

The plan includes measures designed to drive the transition to new technologies such as electric vehicles, heat pumps, carbon capture, hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel. There are also plans to restore approximately 280,000 hectares of peat in England by 2050 and create at least 30,000 hectares of woodland per year across the UK in the next 2 to 3 years.

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The announcement of these new measures comes at a time of high energy prices and rising consumer bills. Against a background of uncertainty partly caused by the pandemic, the government is saying that the new investment will provide the UK with energy security and stable prices in the years to come.

Boris Johnson said:

 “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. By moving first and taking bold action, we will build a defining competitive edge in electric vehicles, offshore wind, carbon capture technology and more, whilst supporting people and businesses along the way.”

Households will be offered grants of £5,000 from April 2022 to help them with the installation of low-carbon heat pumps as part of a £3.9bn plan for decarbonising heat and buildings. However, just £450m is being put aside for the 3-year boiler upgrade scheme which amounts to the installation of 90,000 heat pumps in all. This new grant spells the end of the Renewable Heat Incentive, a financial incentive which has been in place since 2011. If you have the funds to cover the initial outlay for a heat pump this scheme is far more generous than the new grant as it is possible to recoup up to 80% of the cost of installing your heat pump over a period of 7 years as well as saving money on your energy bills. The Renewable Heat Incentive is scheduled to end in March 2022.

Many critics including scientists, green campaigners and even the government’s own supporters find the plan for heat pumps wholly inadequate.

Patrick Hall, a senior research fellow at the Conservative, thinktank Bright Blue said:

“The government’s stated aim is to install 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028, so the maximum of only 90,000 pumps to be covered over the next three years falls far too short. The funding simply isn’t sufficient.”

The government’s new strategy also doesn’t address how the insulation of the UK’s draughty homes will be managed since the failure of the Green Homes Grant earlier this year.

There is an emphasis on carbon capture and storage in the blueprint as well as hydrogen which is controversial as some forms of gas come from fossil fuels. The government had said that it would focus on low-carbon forms generated with renewable energy.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has advised the government that all gas-fired power stations where carbon is emitted and not captured should be phased out by 2035.

Ministers have come under fire this year due to the delay in releasing the plan for net zero. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the independent statutory body that advises ministers on how to reach net zero, issued a warning this summer that measures were needed urgently as delay would raise their cost.

Katie White, Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at World-wide Fund for nature, said:

“We are finally seeing the UK Government set out a positive vision for net zero, sending a clear signal to every sector of the economy on their role, but we are still lacking the full suite of policies and increased funding to close the gap between climate promises and action. The UK can’t afford to stand still, every climate promise must be kept. Future generations won’t forget, and they won’t forgive those who fail to act while there’s still time.”

So where is the money coming from to fund the green plans? Officials say that £26bn of funding will come from the public sector over the next spending review period, from 2021 to 2025, and more than £60bn is expected from the private sector. Another nearly £6bn is coming from overseas investment in green projects since Boris Johnson set out his 10-point plan last year.

However, the parallel document, the Net Zero Review shows that the government are likely to lose tens of billions in revenues from fossil fuel taxes as we switch to renewables and highlighted the risk that green policies may lead to the need for new taxes.

The promise of 440,000 new jobs has also come under close examination after sources at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) claimed the figure was not intended to mean all newly created jobs, but also those that would undergo a natural transition such as employees in car plants moving over to electric vehicles. The government has been reluctant to clarify how many new jobs it expects to create with the strategy, rather than jobs that transition.

Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, told the Guardian:

“The UK’s net zero strategy falls far short of both its Paris and G7 temperature and equity commitments. Scour the associated spreadsheets and the numbers reveal a story of subterfuge, delusion, offsetting and piecemeal policies – all dressed up as a shiny new strategy for Cop26.”

Green campaigners distrust the speed, extent and funding of the new plans, pointing out the government’s continued support of the expansion of fossil fuel industries through new oil and gas licenses which is at odds with the government’s green promises.

Rebecca Newsome, the head of politics at Greenpeace UK said:

“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.”

Responding to the announcement of the new strategy, Community Energy England, the sector body for energy co-ops and community energy businesses said that the plan contained no practical support measures to harness the potential of community energy.

Back in April, the Environmental Audit Committee highlighted the benefits of community energy in terms of creating  jobs, boosting local economies, tackling fuel poverty and engaging citizens.

The Environmental Audit Committee warned:

“We heard that the same benefits will not be achieved if energy decarbonisation is only achieved via commercial, large-scale renewable projects. Due to the urgency of the climate crisis and the vital roles communities will have to play in reaching net zero, it is essential that a timely solution to support the long-term growth of community energy across the UK is found.”

Community Energy England added:

“The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget said unequivocally, ‘if the people of the UK are not engaged in this challenge – the UK will not deliver Net Zero by 2050… people need to be brought into the decision-making process and derive a sense of ownership of the Net Zero project.’

“Community energy is a key way of engaging people to ‘own’ the Net Zero project and is essential to achieving it.”

Community energy doesn’t go unmentioned. The government have at least declared an intention “to work in partnership with people and communities across the country”.

James Wright, policy officer at Co-operatives UK, has also called for more recognition for the community energy sector though he welcomed recognition in the strategy that SMEs will need help in the transition to net zero.

He said:

“Our latest research suggests that 40% of co-ops could benefit from grants to help develop and implement net zero plans while 20% would need investment support to finance their transitions. We are encouraged that the British Business Bank has been tasked with supporting SMEs to move towards net zero, but for this to be useful to co-ops the bank will need to adapt its current investment products to cater to the distinctive features of their model.”

Successive governments have to some extent been successful in cutting emissions from energy. Emissions fell by 40% between 1990 and 2019 as a result of closing coal-fired power stations and spending money on solar, wind and nuclear energy. The UK is a world leader in offshore wind. It currently has capacity of about 10GW, which the government has promised to quadruple by 2030. However, if we are to achieve this, there will need to be much more energy storage for times when the wind doesn’t blow.

It appears that there are many gaps in the government’s new strategy, and we can only hope that the measures that have been introduced are built upon and enhanced as soon as possible and before it’s too late.