The UK’s Net Zero Strategy: Explained

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October 12, 2021
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Following our recent explainer on the UK’s recent Energy White Paper and in the run-up to COP26, we thought it would be a good idea to detail the measures set out under the UK Government’s new Net Zero Strategy.

Published by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, sets out the policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet our net-zero target by 2050. However, whether these policies are truly sufficient to facilitate a transition to net-zero is being questioned.

Without this plan, the UK will not achieve its 2050 net-zero target. Source: BBC

The plan covers a wide variety of areas and will lead to fundamental changes within UK society, some notable measures are as follows:

  • Electric vehicles (EVs): Ministers are proposing £620m in grants for EVs, an extra £350m to help automotive supply chains go electric, and a mandate for car manufacturers to ensure a given proportion of sold cars are electric. Although the start date for this mandate is not given.
  • Cycling/walking: Funding of £2bn to ensure half of all journeys in towns and cities will be made by cycling or walking by 2030
  • Nuclear energy: Roughly £120m in funding is set aside to develop factory-built small modular reactors (SMRs), though there is uncertainty around whether the technology will be mature in time to meet the UK’s carbon targets. Proposals for a new large nuclear plant was set out in the Energy White Paper, funding has not yet been allocated to a specific site, but Sizewell C appears to be the preferred choice.
  • Carbon capture and storage (CCS): The Government is committing £140m to two clusters promoting CCS in North-West England and North Wales. In these areas, heavy industry will be powered by hydrogen split from natural gas, with any emissions pumped into undersea rocks for storage.
  • Aviation: A pledge of £180m to enable 10% of aviation fuel to be sustainable by 2030.
  • Reforestation: An extra £625m is proposed for tree planting and pledges for peat restoration have also been made.
  • Heating: The Government also announced that homeowners would be able to apply for grants of up to £5,000 to install low-carbon ground source heat pumps to replace gas boilers, which are due to be phased out by 2035. Although this has been criticised by some, as it is available for just 90,000 homes over three years (25 million have gas boilers), and no robust plan for improving home insulation has been given

Regardless of what you think of this Government’s green record, the plan does mark an important milestone. While previous Governments could simply align themselves with the green agenda through rhetoric, this is the first time a detailed collection of policies to transform our economy has been expected. But, whether it is ultimately enough to reach net-zero remains to be seen, as it will take time to establish whether this policy portfolio truly represents a plausible pathway to net zero by 2050.

Many argue the Government is trying to have their cake and eat it, by continuing with policies that will allow emissions to grow even as they insist we are heading to net-zero. With projects such as HS2, the new Cumbria coal mine, the construction of £27bn worth of new roads, and the issuing of new North Sea fossil fuel licenses contradicting the green narrative.

Despite reports detailing plans to continue to drill for oil and gas are incompatible with keeping global warming to 1.5C, the UK Government continues to issue new oil and gas licenses. Source: Gary Henderson/Flickr

Environmentalists are also frustrated that the plan omits any mention of eating less meat or limiting how often we fly, with a recent research paper from BEIS advocating for such measures immediately deleted after publication.

There is also minimal detail on how the measures included in the Net Zero Strategy can be funded and how it can be done in a fair and equitable manner. Critically, the plan also fails to detail how much carbon savings the measures discussed are projected to deliver, somewhat undermining the credibility of its claims of leading to net-zero by 2050.

So while the Net Zero Strategy is a positive step in the right direction and positions the UK as a world leader in climate policy, serious questions remain. For many, the plan represents a missed opportunity, who argue that given the timing of the Strategy and the UK’s position as host of the upcoming COP26 conference, a more radical set of proposals could have set a new global precedent.

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