The UK’s battle cries on net zero have led to nothing – and now time is running out | Robin McKie
In 2019, the government passed legislation that committed the nation to achieving a goal of net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by the middle of the century. It was one of the most ambitious targets set by any country in the battle to halt the worst effects of climate change. This is a nation committed to limiting global temperature rises, claimed Conservative party leaders.
Sadly those proud battle cries and that Churchillian rhetoric have not been matched by action. For the past four years, government departments have failed to put in place any coherent policies that could help limit carbon emissions.
This neglect had already become abundantly clear last summer when the high court ruled – ironically, on one of the hottest days on record in Britain – that the government’s strategies had failed to meet its obligations to produce a detailed plan for achieving its carbon cut commitments. Little appears to have changed since then.
Delivery on net zero was always going to need strong action by all government departments. None passed muster, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) emerging as one of the worst laggards, with its secretary of state, Thérèse Coffey, giving the clear impression she simply does not take climate policy seriously.
Across government, words have not been followed by action. Consider the issue of heat pumps. Up to 600,000 per year would be installed by 2028, the nation was promised. In this way, we would phase out gas-burning, carbon-emitting central heating systems from millions of households. However, a House of Lords committee revealed last month that there was now no chance of meeting that target. A mere 50,000 heat pumps were installed last year – and this was at a time when the phasing out of gas central heating would have helped cut sky-high energy bills and increase the UK’s energy security.
The consequences of this failure to act will be harmful not just to our climate control efforts but to our international reputation as leaders in the battle against global heating, said Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change.
“Few countries will listen to our arguments for stronger action when we are failing to deliver on our domestic target,” he told the Observer. “This is also damaging the UK economy. The CBI has already warned that Britain is missing out on billions of pounds in major export opportunities by failing to invest in new zero-carbon technologies, such as battery storage.”
Ultimately the failure to deliver on net zero is the responsibility of successive prime ministers.
During her leadership campaign Liz Truss said little about net zero, while appealing to anti-green Tory members by insisting that she didn’t want to see farmers’ fields “full of solar panels”. Nor was delivery on net zero among Rishi Sunak’s five priorities, which he listed at the start of the year. In fact, he has barely mentioned the issue since becoming leader.
The government is now required by court to produce a more detailed net zero strategy this month. Time is fast running out for it.