The writer is chair of the UK’s Climate Change Committee
The recent debate around UK net zero policies needs an injection of scientific reality. The world will continue to heat and extremes of heat and rainfall will worsen until net zero is reached in every country and every sector. Net zero is not a slogan or a nice-to-have but a necessity.
So far, the UK’s evidence-led approach to policy has helped ensure strong cross-party support for net zero measures. I have sat on the Climate Change Committee since 2018 as a climate scientist. Successive governments, of different political hues, have followed our advice in setting legislated climate targets. These include net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and five-yearly emission reduction targets out to 2035. We should be proud that the UK has been willing, so far, to follow the science.
How do we get there, how can we take maximum advantage of the transition and where will the burden of costs — and the benefits — fall? These questions inform our analysis, but they are also political considerations. I welcome that debate.
Our recent progress report shows that the rollout of renewable energy and electric car sales are broadly on course. But the speed of rollout in other sectors needs to quadruple to meet the targets from 2030 onwards.
So we are concerned to see steps that undermine incentives for innovation and investment for net zero. Many will have missed the government, against our advice, making a technical change to the Emissions Trading Scheme covering the heaviest industrial emitters as it slipped under the radar in the recent political fight over green policies. By increasing the number of credits in the scheme, the UK has markedly reduced carbon prices to below EU levels. That will probably reduce the rate of UK industrial decarbonisation and may hamper future trade with the EU.
Scaling up relies on private-sector investment. Businesses tell us that investment requires consistency: long-term policies and firm deadlines. They already want to get out in front in the transition. The UK should, for example, be able to produce batteries with some of the lowest carbon footprints in the world and become a leader in carbon capture and storage technologies.
The role of the private sector in the transition is also to reduce costs to households and consumers. This is a key part of our committee’s analysis on plausible pathways to meeting the targets. Innovation in electric car technologies means prices are falling — they are already cheaper than petrol and diesel vehicles over their lifetime. Delaying the ban of petrol and diesel cars by five years would add more than £6bn to household costs.
My committee has previously reported on the evidence related to additional oil and gas licensing in the North Sea. The net effect of extra licences on global emissions is unclear and UK production emissions are marginally lower than in many other countries. But without strong international controls, extra UK production may increase global demand. It is our job to remain evidence-led on this highly contentious issue.
We have recommended strong net zero tests for any new production, with limits on gas flaring and more electrification of North Sea platforms. Following the government’s decision to confirm North Sea licences, that must be the focus. There are important implications for Britain’s international leadership on climate change if we get this wrong.
This is precisely the wrong time to lose the UK’s informed political consensus on tackling climate change. The science I do for my day job tells me that rapidly moving to renewable energy, with action on methane leaks from fossil fuel production and farming, could immediately reduce warming rates. That should be a shared goal. By hitting our targets, we will provide a template for all developed economies. Escalating climate damage around the world need not become the new normal.