Net-zero carbon, under-promise and over-deliver?

One aspect of the 2019 general election that stood out was the very high profile of environmental issues on the campaign trail. Both Labour and Lib Dems signed up to incredibly ambitious decarbonisation targets, and the Green Party eventually increased its vote by 65%. Ultimately, the Conservative Party who published the least ambitious climate change commitments has won the largest electoral mandate in 32 years. Boris Johnson has the power to deliver, and by a stroke, the UK’s climate change discourse can move from consideration of hypothetical programmes to a deliverable 30-year route map to net-zero carbon.

Election consequentials

The question is not whether the current plan is ambitious enough, because it is not.  It is whether by sticking to an initially modest plan, Government will make it more certain that the UK will arrive at our net-zero carbon destination in time to make a difference?

When it comes to climate change, the UK’s record is simultaneously easy to praise and easy to condemn – even in the same paragraph.  Our early commitments in the 2010 Climate Change Act and rapid decarbonisation of the electricity grid are great achievements.  Furthermore, the UK is one of the first countries to set a legally binding net-zero carbon pledge.  At the same time, there are many less impressive aspects of UK climate change performance.  We have tinkered with low-carbon energy incentive programmes – potentially slowing down growth in the sector.  We also export much of our consumption-related carbon emissions through our reliance on global supply chains.

Time for action

As custodians of climate change policy since 2010, the Conservatives should, post-election, be expected to hit the ground running.  In practice they actually are strongly positioned to make good progress with the 25-year Environmental Plan and the 2019 Environmental Bill, both driven by Michael Gove whilst in DEFRA.  Both initiatives embed ambitious thinking for the future, and with a strong majority in place, DEFRA’s proposals should proceed intact into legislation.  

However, there is a growing risk that, without a visible, accelerated response to the climate crisis, UK plc will become complacent, relying on past achievements and high-profile initiatives such as Glasgow COP to demonstrate ambition and performance. What is really needed is action right at the leading edge of climate change performance, whether through investment in Carbon Capture and Storage or rapid EV roll-out.  Government also needs to be much more ambitious in its target setting – for numbers of home upgrades for example – and much faster in its implementation.  Otherwise we will find that by 2025, time will have slipped, and we will have to deliver at the pace suggested by the Green Party to meet the UK’s commitments.

Revisiting targets

For this reason, it is self-evident that the vague, yet timid climate change targets set out in the manifesto need to be revisited as a matter of urgency.  A £3.6 billion public fund for climate change adaptation is clearly not enough.  However, there are many other opportunities to crowd-in private sector expertise and investment that don’t require specific government action, as has been so successfully demonstrated with offshore wind.  

Furthermore, whilst it is not practical to ramp up a 3 million homes refit programme in a year, it will be necessary to be delivering national mega-programmes within this parliament.  There is no time to lose.  Again, the involvement of the private sector will not only enable access to expertise and support to rapid scaling, but also will bring a much-needed can-do ethos to challenges that can all-too easily become immersed in necessary but potentially distracting debates on business case, strategy and measurement.

Looking beyond the immediate priorities of climate change mitigation, Government also has a critical role as a client and stakeholder in all of the UK’s infrastructure and utilities investment.  The manifesto pledge to invest £100 billion in infrastructure could create a huge embodied and operational carbon overhead if it is not actively managed to minimise net-carbon.  Investment will need to be genuinely climate smart as well as focused on the social and economic needs of the diverse communities that our self-professed, ‘one-nation’ government is seeking to serve.  It will also need to account for greater resilience to the affects of climate change given the extent to which change is already in the system.  Even when not directly addressing the net-zero challenge, the under-promise and over-deliver approach will involve a huge challenge to ensure that current and future impacts are considered and mitigated.

A managed approach

We think that although whilst it does not feel like an emergency response, a managed approach to the climate emergency is the most appropriate step to take – albeit at a much more accelerated and deliberate pace than has been seen since 2010.  Addressing the crisis doesn’t need a panic response, but it certainly needs more pace, more energy and much more leverage than has been seen to date.  And leverage is important, as the forces of inertia, lack of awareness, willingness to act, access to capital and ability to pay are all barriers in both the public and private sectors.  Barriers that can only be addressed by sheer weight of resources, money and political capital.  

In truth being truly climate conscious is not a throw away electoral giveaway.  Even though it is a rapid response is essential, it is also essential that the whole nation is on board before the bills are incurred.  So long as it is backed by resolve and a long-term plan, under-promise and over-deliver provides the opportunity to create scale and secure essential buy-in.

Simon Rawlinson

Partner - Head of Strategic Research and Insight +44 (0)20 7812 2319 Ask me a question
Share on Wechat
"Scan QR Code" on WeChat and click ··· to share.