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Time is running out for climate policy to match the rhetoric

1st July 2021

The gap between the government’s rhetoric and policy action has become a chasm. Time is running out, and if the UK is to be a credible host of COP26 later this year we need urgent policy action to close it.

An effective climate strategy must have two key components: clear targets, so we know what we’re aiming for; and clear policy to enable the targets to be met. 

The Climate Change Committee’s annual progress report, published today, marks the government’s homework on how it’s achieving against those goals.  

First, the good news.  The CCC gives the government good marks on setting targets.  To its credit, Boris Johnson’s government has in the last 12 months increased the ambition of the UK’s emissions reduction goals in line with the CCC’s advice – to cut emissions by 68% by 2030, and 78% by 2035. And it has backed those with some clear sectoral targets and commitments, for example to end the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030.

But on policy, the CCC say that the positives are much harder to find. This chart summarises the growing gap between ambition and action – with the yellow, orange and red telling us where the government’s quantifiable plans are not matching the rhetoric. That gap is big – of the 199 million tonnes of emission reductions needed for 2030, the CCC assess only 12.1% (or 1 tonne for every 8 we need to save) as being “fully on track”.©Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

In response to the CCC’s criticisms, the government has said three things: we have a world-leading record; we have set ambitious targets; and there is more policy on the way, if you don’t mind waiting a little longer.

And if that sounds familiar, that’s because it is.  For the last five years, the government’s response to the increasingly trenchant criticisms of the CCC has ticked the same boxes.  You can trust us on climate change – because of our great record, ambitious targets, and plan for a plan. How well does that case stack up?

The government’s record

The short answer is: not well enough. There isn’t a single new policy set in the last five years which has had, or is currently projected to have, a significant and quantifiable impact on emissions.

Look at what’s happening in each sector.

First, power. Almost all the UK’s emissions savings in the last decade have come from decarbonisation of our electricity.  That has been based on deployment of renewables, and the rapid decline in coal.  Our savings here have been genuinely transformational.  But those emission reductions rely on policies set more than five years ago: the rise in renewables delivered by the Contract for Difference, and the move away from coal driven by a carbon price, and the commitment to phase it out made by Amber Rudd in 2015.

Here, the Johnson government has maintained progress – continuing to run auctions for new renewables projects, funding some offshore wind infrastructure, and tentatively lifting the moratorium on onshore wind and large scale solar.  But these are incremental changes, based on policies set long ago.

In industry, savings have been driven mainly by the EU Emissions Trading System, which the UK left earlier this year.  Here, the Johnson government is setting up a new scheme which largely replicates the scheme we left – again, incremental progress based on existing policies.

In waste, good progress has been made – but that’s been driven mainly by the Landfill Tax, introduced as long ago as 1996, and emissions are now flatlining.

In transport, savings have been minimal, and those which have been delivered were principally the result of EU targets for improving the efficiency of petrol and diesel vehicles. The government’s target to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 is ambitious.  But the Transport Decarbonisation Plan which should say how it will be met was originally slated for publication in 2020, and is still yet to emerge.

In our homes, emissions have stubbornly refused to fall.  The rate of insulation peaked in 2012; savings in electricity use have been driven principally by EU regulation; and reduced emissions from our heating have been delivered mainly through the ban on non-condensing boilers in the early 2000s, and the Renewable Heat Incentive established over ten years ago.

Here, the government has again tinkered with and extended existing policies, and got its scalpel out with new schemes which will shave off a few tonnes of emissions. But there has been little sign of how the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto pledge of £9.2 billion to cut emissions from buildings will be delivered. The most important new scheme launched to date, the Green Homes Grant, was axed after only six months and numerous delivery problems.  The Heat and Buildings Strategy, which is intended to set out the UK’s plan, has been delayed.

In agriculture, emissions have been flat – and there’s been no significant policy to speak of to address that.

In most of these areas the Prime Minister’s recent Ten Point Plan and subsequent Energy White Paper contained much that was good, but focused on headline goals (40 gigawatts of offshore wind! 600,000 heat pumps a year! No new petrol and diesel cars! 10 megatonnes of CCUS per year!) and some limited supply-side funding.  The policies needed to deliver the targets – reforms to the power market, business models for investment in CCS and hydrogen, incentives to switch to electric vehicles, funding for energy efficiency and low carbon heat – were incremental, not transformational.

What next?

Ministers are well aware of these gaps. They’ve seen them highlighted in numerous CCC reports and will have had advice and proposals from officials, over a period of years, on what they need to do to meet their targets. 

Delivering that isn’t easy – I know from my experience in government that the trade-offs are real, the politics difficult, the funding requirements significant. There is no template for how to decarbonise a major economy, and replicating our success in the power sector is easier to say than do.

But the targets are set in law, and time is running short. The UK government still has the opportunity, before COP26, to turn the CCC’s chart green and match its targets with a world-leading plan. If it’s to do that, the next six months is the time to deliver transformative policy which mirrors the rhetoric.

Source: Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (originally published on 24th June 2021) 

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