Climate crisis: Government not on track to meet net zero targets and risks are ‘bigger than coronavirus’

‘We have simply not done the radical things that need to be done,’ experts tell ministers

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 02 July 2020 18:38 BST
The UK's energy sector is successfully decarbonising but all other areas require huge amounts of improvement, experts have told MPs
The UK's energy sector is successfully decarbonising but all other areas require huge amounts of improvement, experts have told MPs (Getty )

An inquiry into the government’s progress on reaching net zero emissions by 2050 has been told the UK is “clearly not” making sufficient progress to hit the legally binding target.

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s inquiry into net zero and the UN climate summits was told by expert witnesses that following the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the only way to coherently create jobs, stimulate spending and future-proof the British economy was to prioritise a green recovery.

The inquiry was told the legally-binding target of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 was not only an achievable milestone, but would actively provide employment opportunities, become a basis for better infrastructure and help stave off even worse impacts than coronavirus in the near future.

Expert witness Lord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change, warned the government: “In almost every sector we are failing. That has been covered up by the fact we have done relatively well on the decarbonisation of energy, but in most other areas we are not reaching anywhere near the levels we have to. The government is not on track to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, both of which or course are statutory requirements.”

Asked why the government was not on track Lord Deben replied: “We haven’t taken the measures quickly enough, because until very recently I don’t think there has been sufficient concern outside the departments of BEIS and Defra to do what they need to do. I think there is a significant change now, but we have simply not done the radical things that need to be done.”

The experts told the inquiry that all of the various government departments need to be “properly joined up” in order to put the UK on track to net zero by 2050.

“Housing is an obvious example of this,” Mike Thompson, head of carbon budgets at the CCC told MPs. “You need BEIS to have the basic energy policy in place… you need the Department of Housing to be setting the right standards and driving the compliance parts, you need the Treasury to provide the right funding, the right level of tax and subsidy instruments and you need the department of Education and Skills to be involved to provide the right level of trade labour to be available to actually install the measures. All of those bits have to fit together and interlock to drive delivery.”

The inquiry hearing came after the prime minister caused widespread dismay after unveiling a “new deal” for jobs and infrastructure on Tuesday which failed to emphasise protecting the environment, deal with emissions, and included a plan to spend £100m on road transport.

On Thursday the BEIS inquiry was warned the environmental and economic impact of the government not hitting its own targets would be catastrophic.

Baroness Brown told the panel: “Nothing like enough has been done… We have a real challenge. We had the Met Office telling us yesterday that 40C by the end of the century is something we have to be prepared for and we know that the 2018 summer will be a typical summer - a 50 per cent chance of a summer like that by 2050. Unless we do more, that will significantly increase the number of fatalities.”

“We need to see homes that are built and refurbished so they are fit for the future - both zero carbon, but also well ventilated and well shaded to cope with these higher temperatures.

“We are going to see water shortages. If we don’t do any more adaptation we’re going to see anywhere between a 1.1 and 3bn liter deficit by 2050.”

She said the implications of that could mean agricultural land considered to be in “poor condition” could rise from what it is currently at 2 per cent, to higher than 40 per cent. Such an impact would devastate food production and disrupt efforts to halt climate change such as planting trees.

“Surface water flooding is still becoming more prevalent in our cities and we are still losing urban green spaces, which is one of the important ways of absorbing the short and intense periods of rainfall which are becoming more common,” she said.

“We really need a much better understanding across both the public and private sector that they need to be planning for both a 2C and 4C of warming and the impact that brings. We know we are going to see between 1.5 - 2C of warming in the best case. That’s not a risk, that’s what the future looks like. We could see something much worse than that,” she added.

Philip Dunne, Conservative MP for Ludlow, noted the UK has 29 million homes of which less than half have sufficient insulation and construction methods which makes them energy efficient.

He asked the expert panel how the government can be persuaded to provide the £9.2bn pledged in the Conservative manifesto to address this issue.

“What you say is absolutely right,” Lord Deben replied. “That money is necessary. It’s the very best way of stimulating the economy - British jobs in Britain - all over the country - and meets the prime minister’s concern about “leveling up”, it helps the poorest who need to be helped if we’re going to have a just transition.”

He added: “What we should be doing with new houses is since the Climate Change Committee first asked the government to improve our building regulations and the standards to which houses should be built, we’ve built a million more houses, all of which will have to be retrofitted.

“I’m afraid I rudely refer to them as ‘crap houses’ and the reason I did that was the mechanism of building a bad house in these circumstances is that the builder passes the cost of energy onto the people who buy the house. If he builds the house properly in the first place, the energy costs, let alone the emissions, are reduced enormously.”

Following the publication of its annual report to parliament last week, the Committee on Climate Change’s Chris Stark said despite a year passing since the target to hit net-zero by 2050 became law, it had not been a year of progress, and the delay of the COP26 climate conference to November 2021 now provides a window for the UK to “get our ducks in a row and be credible internationally next year”.

The report set out five key steps for building a resilient economy, and said the coronavirus pandemic has “demonstrated how quickly social change can occur”.

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