Climate change: it’s all about delivery

Posted by Nick Molho on 26th July 2019
First published in: The Economist

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The UK Government has set a clear direction of travel through its commitment to a net zero emissions target and the ambition of its 25 Year Environment Plan. But the credibility of its climate change and environmental ambitions require a significant step up in action over the next 18 months argues Nick Molho, executive director at the Aldersgate Group.

With social, business and political awareness of climate change and environmental degradation growing, UK environmental and climate policy has been on an important journey over the last 18 months. At the start of 2018, the Prime Minister published a 25 Year Environment Plan, which whilst non-binding, made the ambitious commitment of over-turning the decline of England’s natural environment within a generation and ensuring all key aspects of the environment reach a healthy status.

In June 2019, following an influential report from a UN body calling for an urgent increase in global action to tackle climate change, the UK Government made the decision to adopt a legally binding target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, up from 80% previously.

UK climate policy: good on ambition, falling short on delivery

Providing a clear sense of policy direction is essential to attract affordable business investment in the green infrastructure needed to tackle and adapt to climate change and the Government should be commended for doing this. However, when it comes to delivery policies, UK government action on the ground has fallen significantly short of what is needed.

Two recent reports from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – the government’s independent statutory adviser on climate policy – warned that the Government had only delivered one policy in full out of 25 headline policies recommended last year to cut emissions. When it comes to preparing the UK to the impacts from unavoidable climate change, the Committee concluded that the government is now spending less on making the UK’s environment, homes, infrastructure and businesses resilient to extreme weather events than it did ten years ago.

Policy detail and cross-government co-operation urgently needed

This stark assessment of the UK’s insufficient action to tackle and prepare for climate change needs to be urgently addressed by the new Prime Minister. The vast majority of investment needed to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change will come from the private sector and businesses will not invest at the scale needed unless clear regulatory drivers and market mechanisms are put in place to support investment. This is especially the case as much of the infrastructure needed (such as the potential conversion of the gas grid to hydrogen and the deployment of carbon capture and storage technology) tends to have high upfront costs and can take many years to build.

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At the heart of the policy challenge that lies ahead is the fact that the UK doesn’t just need new policies to be introduced, it also needs all government departments to pull in the same direction – and with the same level of urgency – and for their respective actions to be far better co-ordinated.

Stepping up action on emission reductions

Starting with emission reductions, urgent action is required to deliver meaningful cuts in building and transport emissions and to complete the decarbonisation of the power sector (most notably by providing a new investment route to cheap forms of renewable energy like onshore wind). A large swathe of the UK’s homes and commercial buildings lack regulations to improve energy efficiency and in areas where these regulations do exist, ambition is often lacking and enforcement is poor. This needs to be rapidly addressed through the introduction of increasingly ambitious regulatory standards mandating improvements in energy efficiency, complemented by tax incentives such as stamp duty adjustments for the owner-occupier market.

When it comes to transport, the government needs to accelerate the roll-out of zero-emissions vehicles by bringing forward the deadline to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans to around 2030. This should be complemented by tightening fuel efficiency standards throughout the 2020s, providing guaranteed grants for the purchase of zero-emission vehicles until they achieve upfront cost parity and providing innovation funding for decarbonising long-distance heavy-duty vehicles. 

Time to get serious about resilience

When it comes to improving the UK’s resilience to climate change, the Government should first of all ensure that its upcoming legislation is in line with the ambition of its 25 Year Environment Plan. The Agriculture Bill should aim to put in place a public subsidy system that is genuinely linked to farmers delivering improvement to the natural environment. The upcoming Environment Bill – which will introduce a new regulatory framework for the environment after Brexit - should introduce legally binding targets to improve the state of the natural environment in key areas such as soils, peatland, biodiversity and resource efficiency. These should be complemented by a requirement on Government to put in place the necessary policies to achieve them and report regularly against them.

Reviewing Building Regulations and implementing the Environment Agency’s recent Flood Strategy will also be vital to better prepare the UK’s homes, infrastructure and businesses to the impacts of surface flooding, overheating and other weather impacts.

The time for action is now

In 18 months’ time, the UK will be the likely host of COP26. This will be the most important climate summit since the 2015 Paris Agreement, where it is hoped that emitters around the world will increase their pledges to cut emissions. To be an effective host of COP26 and ensure the summit puts the world on a credible pathway to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the UK must show that it has a credible plan to build a climate-ready, net-zero economy and that it has begun delivering on its plan. This is more than ever a time for action.