Ministers have failed to develop coherent strategies for cutting emissions from the most polluting sectors of the economy, and are not matching their climate rhetoric with action, the UK government’s environmental adviser warned on Thursday.
In a highly critical report on the government’s progress on delivering economy-wide emissions cuts, the Climate Change Committee said decarbonisation plans for key sectors, such as housing, had been repeatedly delayed, and that it was “hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen in the past 12 months”.
John Gummer, also known as Lord Deben, chair of the CCC, said: “Almost all things that should have happened have either been delayed or . . . haven’t hit the mark.”
Although the government’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 was an important pledge, “the delivery has just not been there”, he added.
The annual progress report on the pace of decarbonisation is the second highly critical assessment in just over a week by the panel and adds to pressure on ministers to act ahead of November’s UK-hosted international climate summit, COP26.
The earlier study - a stock take of climate risk produced every five years - accused ministers of failing to plan for the “inevitable” impacts of climate change.
The government’s long awaited cross-sector strategy for how to reach net zero — which it has said it will publish before COP26 — must urgently be made public, and be suitably specific and detailed, the CCC said. It must also be backed up by commitments from the Treasury to fund the transition, the report said.
In the absence of a credible net zero strategy, it would “be very difficult to make COP26 stand up, because everyone is looking for action and delivery and not just for promises”, Gummer said.
The CCC acknowledged the significant progress made in decarbonising the power sector, but said the same could not be said for surface transport and buildings — the two sectors responsible for the greatest volume of carbon emissions. Standalone decarbonisation plans for both sectors have yet to be published.
Although UK emissions fell by about 13 per cent in 2020, that was largely a superficial change driven by the pandemic as lockdown led to a sharp fall in the number of flights and amount of vehicles on Britain’s roads, a drop that could be reversed this year, the CCC said.
“We are very concerned about where things stand,” said Chris Stark, CCC’s chief executive. The government’s climate targets “are not going to be achieved by magic”.
The lack of progress was “not a great place to be for the UK as COP president”, he added.
The advisory group pointed out that ministers’ climate plans had “largely ignored” the potential for changes in the nation’s diet, such as encouraging people to eat less meat to reduce emissions from agriculture.
It recommended that people consume 20 per cent less meat and dairy by 2030 to free up some of the land used for grazing animals.
“The government has made it completely clear they don’t intend to follow our recommendations on this,” said Stark. If ministers are reluctant to promote dietary changes, they will have to find extra emissions cuts elsewhere, he added.
The group also recommended the development of a “net zero test” against which all government decisions should be assessed, and of a blueprint for how border tariffs on carbon intensive products might work.
Other suggestions included introducing an aviation tax to encourage people to fly less. It also recommended against the government integrating the aviation industry’s much-criticised carbon offsetting system into the UK’s new carbon trading system — a proposal that is under discussion — until the quality of the offsets improves.
Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said the findings showed that preparations for climate shocks were “not high enough on the agenda”.
The government said: “Any suggestion we have been slow to deliver climate action is widely off the mark.” The forthcoming building, transport and net zero strategies “will set out more of the very policies the Climate Change Committee is calling for”.
The chart on CO2 emissions has been corrected to show the annual emissions are in millions of tonnes