On 20 September 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tore up the long established consensus on steps to achieve net zero CO2 emissions. The phasing out of cars powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) and of gas boilers is to be delayed by five years (from 2030 to 2035). The obligation on landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their properties is scrapped.
Sunak justified the change by saying the UK has made more progress than comparable countries, our emissions are only a tiny fraction of the global total and people should not be asked to pay unaffordable amounts to make the transition to new, climate friendly technologies. Is this an example of long-term, strategic decision making, or simply an attempt at creating a dividing line with the opposition that can be exploited in the next general election? Will it make the climate emergency worse in the long run?
As the Conservative Party meets in Manchester, North West Bylines takes a look.
What does net zero mean?
According to the United Nations, the world must achieve a balance between CO2 emission and its absorption (by forests, oceans and potentially artificial means) – so that CO2 in the atmosphere remains constant and temperatures do not rise more than 1.5°C above the levels of pre-industrial times (the late 1800s). This does not mean that CO2 emissions must be at zero, but that there must be a major reduction in them.
Many countries around the world have committed themselves to achieving this target, as has the UK, which was the first to make net zero by 2050 legally binding by act of parliament in 2019.
Is the world on track?
The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its 2023 update of the roadmap for net zero on the world’s progress to net zero sounds a relatively optimistic note;
“Driving greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s energy sector to net zero and limiting global warming to 1.5°C remains possible due to the record growth of key clean energy technologies, though momentum needs to increase rapidly in many areas, according to a new edition of the IEA’s landmark net zero roadmap.”
But it gives no support to the idea that we can afford to slow down or delay action to reduce emissions from energy, transport, and housing:
“If policy ambition is not increased before 2030, limiting the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C by 2100 will become much harder. Much more CO2 would need to be removed from the atmosphere after 2050. The Delayed Action Case indicates that postponing stronger action would cost the world an additional USD 1.3 trillion per year, 50% more than was invested in fossil fuel supply in 2022.”
Is the UK really a global leader?
It’s an unusual type of leadership when those following set the pace. It is true that the UK has made great progress in replacing coal-based electricity with renewable energy, and it is true that the UK has reduced emissions more than many comparable countries – Sunak is fond of making comparisons with France.
But our emissions adjusted for the size of our economies are in fact almost identical with those of France, according to the European Commission. France has, for a long time, had a large proportion of nuclear generated electricity so the progress made by the UK has seen us catch up as we switch to renewables. Now we have to tackle more difficult sectors, such as transport and wasteful energy use in our homes.
It’s also true that the UK represents only a small proportion of global emissions. Does this mean that we should no longer aspire to lead the fight against climate change? If we scale back our ambitions, won’t other countries see it as justification for doing the same?
There’s no evidence that the UK is exceptional or that it can afford to ‘pause’ in the transition to lower emissions. For example, France installed more than 600,000 heat pumps in 2022 compared to 55,000 in the UK. In the electric vehicle (EV) sector the UK is middle ranking based on the percentage of sales made up of EVs. How can we claim to lead when we are tailoring our pace to match those who are following, rather than pulling them forwards?
Reducing emissions from transport
One of the headline changes in Sunak’s announcement was that it will still be possible to sell ICE-powered vehicles up to 2035, instead of 2030. The delay, justified on the grounds that consumers cannot be asked to pay excessive costs, does not make sense. Although EVs are currently more expensive to buy (though cheaper to run), it is highly likely that by the latter years of this decade – 2025 to 2027 – economies of scale and simpler construction will mean EVs are cheaper than their ICE equivalents.
So delaying the ban will mean the consumer will be faced with higher, not lower costs. Sales of second-hand ICE-powered vehicles were never going to be banned (this would be wasteful of the resources used to build them in the first place). Establishing a viable EV industry in the UK would also create opportunities to develop technology and export to other countries further behind on the adoption curve.
Reducing emissions from housing
There are significant problems with reducing the energy consumption in houses and a delay in the phasing out of new gas boilers might be part of the solution if it allowed more time for finding solutions. But without other important issues being tackled the recent announcement looks awfully like kicking the can down the road.
According to Wikipedia there are some 27 million dwellings (houses and flats in the UK). Rather neatly, this means that one million dwellings must be retrofitted with energy efficient heating systems EVERY YEAR between now and 2050.
Heat pumps, unlike EVs replacing ICE-powered cars, are not always simple like for like replacements for gas boilers – especially the popular combi-boiler: heat pumps cannot generate hot water on demand, so a tank is needed. Many houses and flats do not have a hot water tank and may not have room for one. Secondly, heat pumps operate at a lower temperature than gas boilers, which means that radiators need to be bigger to transfer the same amount of heat.
There are shortages of skilled labour to install and maintain this new type of heating system. Installers need to operate at a national level, to develop standardised approaches and lower costs. A coherent national strategy would:
- Increase the size and availability of grants to improve insulation. The current scheme, ludicrously called the Great British Insulation scheme offers limited help to about 400,000 homes over three years (it’s means tested and only available to those on benefits). This is a tiny fraction of what is needed.
- Fund an aggressive programme to train heat pump installers to support the stated target of 600,000 installations per year (remembering this is only about half of the number needed).
- Work with financial services industry on ways to fund the transition, based on savings on future energy consumption.
- Make some innovative steps to leverage the opportunity (rather than treating it as a problem). For example, if the government were to announce they would procure 5,000,000 heat pumps over the next five years, which would be offered to households on easy terms, how would industry react?
- Enforce the installation of heat pumps (or equivalent) in all new buildings as soon as possible. The building firm Redrow has shown the way and committed to do this already. Others should follow – stopping the problem getting worse is always the first step.
No such announcements have been made, which suggests that the government is not truly engaged in the net zero transition in domestic energy supply.
What is the Government getting right?
Buried in the headline grabbing announcements and nonsensical ‘banning’ of proposals which were never government policy anyway, were some words about addressing the issues with getting new energy sources connected to the grid. Sunak announced that he “will shortly bring forward comprehensive new reforms to energy infrastructure”. Although we were given no details this is a positive step – it can take more than five years at present for a new renewable energy project to get connected and start feeding power to the grid.
Also positive is the creation of ‘Green Fellowships’, to support scientists and engineers in developing better technical solutions to support the net zero programme. And the 50% increase in the grant for upgrading boilers is welcome.
Long-term strategy or short-term electoral panic?
Sunak is pitching himself as a fresh face, prepared to make hard choices and change what has gone before. He maintains he is still fully committed to the legally binding targets and to reach net zero by 2050. But some of the steps announced on 20 September suggest that electoral calculations, both in establishing clear dividing lines with Labour and in appealing to a climate-sceptical base, are the prime motivation behind his change of course.
The UK’s Climate Change Committee, a statutory, independent body set up to advise and report on progress towards net zero, is unequivocally unimpressed in its June 2023 assessment (i.e. even before Sunak’s September 20 statement):
“Our confidence in the UK meeting its goals from 2030 onwards is now markedly less than it was in our previous assessment a year ago.”