Covid-19 recovery a 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' to spur net-zero transition

Producing a Covid-19 recovery plan which is fully aligned with the UK's 2050 net-zero climate target is "absolutely necessary and entirely possible" with strong coordination across Whitehall, Ministers have been told by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The Committee has today (25 June) published its annual progress report to Parliament, assessing progress made to reduce emissions over the past 12 months. It states that territorial emissions have decreased by 30% since 2008, despite economic growth of 15%. Consumption emissions, which also account for imported goods and international transport, decreased by 18% in the same timeframe.

Unlike previous editions of the report, the document also provides time-bound policy recommendations on a department-by-department, with all measures designed to help the UK recover from the recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report’s headline conclusion is that there is a sizeable “policy deficit” between recent, current and planned short-term action, and what is required to put the UK on track to meeting its long-term climate targets. Of particular concern to the CCC is the fact that no sector is prepared to adapt to 2C of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100; the ongoing delays to the delivery of the National Infrastructure Strategy and Energy White Paper; the fact that the Buildings and Heat Strategy may be delayed and the lack of a clear carbon pricing trajectory.

But the report is, overall, optimistic, arguing that the delay to COP26 has created a “window to establish a credible and internationally-leading position” on climate change while also rebounding strongly from the economic impacts of the pandemic. “Act courageously, [a green recovery] is there for the taking,” the report urges, concluding that a full net-zero policy package with sector-specific roadmaps must be “in place and working effectively” by 2025. The key elements of the package should cover the UK’s most-emitting sectors – surface transport, heavy industry, the built environment, energy and agriculture.

Sector-specific recommendations

On surface transport, which accounted for 24% of national emissions in 2019, the CCC is urging the Government to bring its ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars forward to 2032. The current date is set at 2040 and Boris Johnson has pledged to bring it forward to 2035 at COP26, now scheduled for winter 2021. Interim targets requiring increasing shares of vehicle sales to be accounted for with zero-emission vehicles should support the new date.

Aside from cars, better-targeted policy mechanisms are needed for the electrification of vans and the transitioning of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to biomethane and hydrogen. More must also be done to facilitate modal shift i.e. from individual vehicles to public transport, walking and cycling, and to remove diesel trains from the UK network by 2040.

For heavy industry (21% of emissions in 2019), the CCC recommends that hydrogen storage and transportation infrastructure, as well as multiple low-carbon industrial clusters with hydrogen facilities, are completed by the mid-2020s. Incentive mechanisms must be developed to support this transition and couple it with emerging carbon capture and storage technologies.

Key recommendations on decarbonising buildings include the transition to a sustainable heat networks model, with more than 1.5 million heat pumps being deployed annually in the early 2030s; the creation of new and gradually tightening mandates for emissions from existing and new buildings of all kinds and better supports for retrofits. The CCC commends the UK Government for creating a follow-up to its Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) but highlights the fact that domestic insulation rates continue to fall. Retrofitting has been posited as a key part of any “green” recovery package by bodies such as the IEA and Aldersgate Group.

In the energy sector, “high ambition and a well-designed package of policies” has seen emissions fall by 67% since 2008, the report notes. Further decarbonisation would result from a “stable, predictable” carbon price, better planning and leasing supports for renewable generation projects, further collaboration with the public and private sector and better incentives for emerging technologies.

Agricultural slant

Agriculture and land use is an area where policy progress has been particularly sluggish, the CCC states. Peatland restoration, soil regeneration and tree-planting frameworks, now overdue, must be produced rapidly. Farmers must also receive “firm” mandates to reduce emissions and implementation support to complement these requirements. The CCC’s previous advice to Parliament on agriculture also detailed measures to reduce food waste and meat consumption.

Overarching all of these recommendations is a call for Whitehall to improve cross-departmental collaboration, to ensure that almost all new investments made by Government, business and the public sector are zero-carbon by the early 2030s. The UK has faced accusations of climate hypocrisy in recent times due to DFiD’s financing of fossil fuel projects in developing nations and BEIS’s support for a new deep coal mine in Cumbria. Net-zero should also be embedded and a core governmental aim and the Government should lead by example, the CCC concludes.

With regard to Covid-19 specifically, the CCC reiterates its six principles for a green and resilient recovery, first delivered to Boris Johnson in May. They are:

  • Using climate investments to support economic recovery and jobs.

  • Leading a shift towards positive long-term behaviours.

  • Tackling the wider ‘resilience deficit’ on climate change.

  • Embedding fairness as a core principle.

  • Ensuring the recovery does not ‘lock-in’ greenhouse gas emissions or increased climate risk.

  • Strengthening incentives to reduce emissions when considering fiscal changes.

“The steps that the UK takes to rebuild from the Covid-19 pandemic can accelerate the transition to a successful and low-carbon economy and improve our climate resilience,” CCC chair Lord Deben said. “Choices that lock-in emissions or climate risks are unacceptable.”