Net zero strategy shows UK will miss 2030 emissions cuts target
The UK government has said it is still on track to meet its international climate commitments under the Paris agreement, as analysis of its energy plans suggested more drastic policies would be needed to make the required carbon cuts.
Ministers announced the UK’s revamped net zero strategy on Thursday, with a raft of documents exceeding 1,000 pages, setting out policies on sectors from biomass to solar power, and from electric vehicles to nuclear reactors. It came as Rishi Sunak headed to Oxfordshire to visit a development facility for nuclear fusion, accompanied by Grant Shapps, the energy and net zero secretary.
The prime minister said: “People should be really proud of the UK’s track record on all of this. If you look at it, we’ve decarbonised faster than any other major economy. Our carbon emissions have been reduced by over 40%, much more than all the other countries that we compete with.”
Shapps later told Sky News: “We all know that electricity can be a big way to decarbonise, but we also know these are big changes. So this is not a sort of rip-out-your-boiler moment. This is a transition over a period of time to get to homes which are heated in a different way and also insulated much better.”
The government’s analysis, however, shows that its new policies will meet only 92% of the emissions cuts required and, without further changes, the target will be missed.
At the heart of its strategy is the UK’s legally binding requirement to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and its commitment under the Paris agreement to a plan – called a nationally determined contribution, or NDC – to cut emissions by 68% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. The 2030 pledge, boasted of as “world-leading” in the run-up to the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in 2021, is vital to get the UK on track to meet the long-term goal, and will be closely scrutinised by other governments.
Within the dense pages of analysis and recommendations, the official assessment of the NDC stood out: “We have quantified emissions savings to deliver 88 megatonnes or 92% of the NDC. We are confident that the delivery of emissions savings by unquantified policies detailed in this package will largely close this gap and the government will bring forward further measures to ensure [it] will meet its international commitments if required.”
However, Chris Venables, the head of politics at Green Alliance thinktank, said: “Our analysis shows that even that 92% is a very generous reading. It is hard to celebrate an announcement that says itself it’s not enough. The bottom line is that this plan doesn’t plot a route to net zero. There are only so many times we can claim climate leadership while falling short of our own targets.”
Ed Miliband, the shadow climate and net zero secretary, told MPs: “A target for less than seven years’ time, and they [the government] are miles off … all of the policies, all of the hot air, don’t meet the target they promised on the world stage.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero told the Guardian: “We remain committed to delivering our international commitments, including the 2030 NDC under the Paris agreement which we fully expect to meet. We are on track to deliver our carbon budgets, creating jobs and investment across the UK while reducing emissions. Our carbon budget delivery plan is a dynamic long-term plan for a transition that will take place over the next 15 years, setting us on course to reach net zero by 2050.”
A few of the winners …
Car manufacturers must ensure a proportion of their sales are of electric vehicles – 22% of cars and 10% of vans by 2024 – under a zero emissions vehicle mandate, though campaigners said the proportion had been set too low. About £800m in capital funding is being made available for electric vehicles, and there will be a boost to EV charging infrastructure.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS)
Much of the government’s strategy for continuing with fossil fuel development – with decisions on potential new oil and gas fields imminent – rests on the deployment of technology to capture and store carbon dioxide in geological formations under the North Sea. The government shortlisted eight projects to move ahead in its funding scheme, including one backed by oil giant BP, and expects to make £20bn of investment available over 20 years in CCS.
Hydrogen and nuclear
The government named 20 new hydrogen projects that are on track to receive a share of £240m, to help the development of a fuel the government sees as central to the UK’s low-carbon future. It comes despite doubts among experts over some of its applications – particularly in home heating – and some of its sources, as fossil fuel companies are looking to hydrogen to allow them to continue drilling. Great British Nuclear will be a new organisation intended to come forward with small nuclear projects that the government believes will be key to its aim of generating a quarter of the UK’s electricity from nuclear by 2050.
And some of the gaps and the losers …
The government dashed hopes that its new strategy might lift the ban on onshore windfarms in England. The lack of action has frustrated leading academics and green groups because onshore windfarms could begin powering the grid far sooner than nuclear reactors, and would help to reduce energy bills. Dr Daniel Quiggin, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, said onshore wind could bring greater real emissions reductions than removing emissions from the air via carbon capture technology.
While the government hopes to boost renewable power generation, and nuclear energy, there was little detail on how to solve one of the most pressing problems for the UK’s ageing electricity network. New windfarms and other sources of power, and the battery storage facilities needed to smooth out the intermittency of renewable power, can wait years for the grid connections they need, partly owing to the difficulty of getting planning permission and partly to a lack of grid capacity.
Andy Willis, the founder of Kona Energy, said: “Without significant grid connection reform, the vast potential of clean energy development will linger, trapped behind red tape and bureaucratic delays.”
There was little reference to agriculture, even though farming and food prices are highly sensitive to energy costs and agriculture is one of the biggest single sources of UK emissions. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was involved in the Whitehall discussions around Thursday’s announcements, but a key land use strategy is not due until the end of June. Then, both the future of farming emissions and the potential for growing trees and restoring landscapes to store carbon – and offset the UK’s remaining emissions by 2050 – will be addressed.
There was drama on the stock market on Thursday as shares in Drax, which operates the UK’s biggest power station burning biomass, fell early on after the government appeared to reject its plea for increased subsidies for a project to capture and store the carbon dioxide from its wood burning. But Drax quickly pointed out that the main decisions on subsidies will follow later, by the end of June, when a biomass strategy is promised. The market confusion arose, the company claimed, because the government had separated its process for supporting hydrogen, gas and CCS projects from its consideration of biomass subsidies.