Is the UK a Net Zero hero?

A recent poll by the Telegraph found that more than half of the UK population (54%) believe that Net Zero is ‘unachievable’ by 2050, despite the fact that the UK government has made a legally binding commitment. So why is the UK population so unconvinced by the government’s promise? And are they right to be sceptical?

It’s been 4 years since the UK government pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, announcing a series of sectoral policies and plans that culminated in the Net Zero Strategy, released in October 2021. This strategy was significant in the history of such policies because it included delivery mechanisms to help achieve the targets, thereby holding the government accountable. The key commitments outlined in the strategy included a target of 100% clean energy by 2035, a ban on petrol and diesel car sales by 2030, and business models to support hydrogen and carbon capture industry.

Net Zero refers to the balance between the Greenhouse Gases emissions produced vs those taken out from the atmosphere. Net Zero is achieved when the amount of CO2 released is the same as the amount removed. It is seen as a way to slow down climate change, and honour the terms of the Paris Agreement which commits the international community to limit the temperature change to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

However, the UK Net Zero strategy has been subject to extensive criticism and controversy, including a humiliating court case filed against it by Friends of the Earth, Good Law Project, and ClientEarth. The outcome was a win for climate activists, with the High Court concluding in July 2022 that the Government’s net zero strategy breached the Climate Change Act and needed to be strengthened. Such incidents don’t exactly inspire faith in the likelihood that the government will stick to the commitment.

Giving credit where credit’s due, the UK has had some marked success on its journey towards this goal. In some areas, the UK has ambitious targets supported by clear and credible policies, including committing to a fully decarbonised power sector by 2035. The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by 40% over the last 3 decades, and half the UK’s electricity generation in 2019 was from low-carbon technologies. Energy emissions fell by 73% between 1990 and 2021, following the closure of coal-fired power stations, and increased investment in renewable energy. Your nan might complain about the eye sore as you travel through the countryside, but impressively, the UK is a world leader in wind power, particularly, offshore wind, which I’ll admit is a little easier on the eyes.

What’s important is that people are talking about it. 66% of the UK public is now aware of the concept of Net Zero, and climate anxiety is at an all time high, with 82% of people ‘concerned about climate change’.

However, on the other hand, the UK has witnessed some embarrassing U-turns when it comes to its commitment to the Net Zero target which have cast doubt on the true extent of its dedication to the goal. The ban on fracking was lifted by Liz Truss during her short stint in Downing Street and then reinstated by Rishi Sunak, in a move that made many in the UK breathe an audible sigh of relief. However, the 2022 UK Energy Security Strategy included a promise to issue new licenses in the North Sea for oil and gas, a controversial move that the government insisted on making despite the UN warning against new fossil fuel projects. Developing new oil and gas reserves is incompatible with the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature limit and will not help address the current energy crisis.

…the UK has witnessed some embarrassing U-turns when it comes to its commitment to the Net Zero target.

Unfortunately for the UK population, and the planet, key weaknesses remain in the Net Zero Strategy that need to be addressed in order for the UK to meet its climate targets. Under the current policies, projected emissions in 2030 will be 58-63% lower than 1990 levels. This is a long way behind the 2030 NDC, which targets at least a 68% reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions. The lack of transparency surrounding policies and their reliance on technological innovation, for example, investment in carbon capture, also reduce the prospects of success. Additionally, under 40% of the emissions reductions required to meet the UK’s NDC are supported by policies with proven delivery mechanisms and sufficient funding.  Overall, CAT rates the UK’s net zero target as acceptable, with room for improvements that the UK government will hopefully implement in the updated 2023 Net Zero Strategy, and the UK’s climate targets, policies, and finance ‘Almost Sufficient’.

To achieve Net Zero by 2050, the UK will need to severely step up its game. Just as one example, the UK will need to quadruple its carbon electricity generation. Although it’s clear that some progress is being made, currently the UK’s climate change strategy appears to be dominated by a pervasive failure to live up to it’s grandiose promises. It is also questionable whether even reaching the Net Zero goal will be sufficient to prevent climate change from causing serious damage, with some studies finding that we have already passed some tipping points. However, there is hope. The CCC believes that, although highly challenging, Net Zero is possible for the UK by 2050.

Image credit: Daniel James