The end of 2020 saw a real momentum shift in the UK’s path to net zero.
In the latter stages of the year, we saw in a short period of time the publication of the Government’s 10-point Green Industrial Revolution plan, a revising of our 2030 emissions target to a reduction level of 68%, the 6th Carbon Budget from the Climate Change Committee which urged the government to adopt a 78% reduction target by 2035, the long-awaited Energy White Paper and an interim review on Net Zero by HM Treasury ahead of a more comprehensive modelling of the costs and financial benefits of the transition.
What does this tell us?
As we begin to build back post Covid-19 – the government has mooted the idea to base an economic recovery around a low-carbon approach, with the Treasury speaking in their interim review of how a “net zero transition is essential to long-term prosperity”. With all this activity, it genuinely feels like we could move from a theoretical debate of should we adopt a net zero approach, to one that is becoming focused on defining how we deliver a net zero future. These announcements and the debate they have created embody a sense of enhanced ambition for the country to be a world-leader in the path to a low-carbon future.
The UK in 2019 became the first major industrialised country to make a legal commitment to net zero by 2050. We have since seen a series of countries outline their desire to become low carbon with Canada and Japan setting their sights on a similar timescale and China committing to 2060 as their target date. A shift to a “greener” approach is also promised from incoming US President elect Joe Biden, with the immediate first step being readmittance to the Paris Agreement and a $2trillion climate change plan at the centre of his agenda.
For many who have worked and studied in the field of low-carbon energy the actions we are now seeing have been called for over a number of years. Most people recognise this decade as being particularly important to make rapid advancements across technology, infrastructure and, most importantly, changes to our lifestyles. The introduction of regulatory certainty will help investment decisions across both areas. But we no longer have the luxury of delaying important decisions.
This is positive momentum, but it still remains a crucial time for climate policy with governments now on notice to deliver on their bold commitments. Many modellers and forecasters believe that investment needs to be front loaded over the coming decades, because the journey on emissions reduction should also be front loaded. Some of the challenges we face are huge. We need to decrease emissions three times as fast as they have increased, so we need a decisive and permanent shift away from a dependence on fossil fuels.
Covid-19 aside, climate change and the transition to a net zero energy system and economy is the topic of our times. It is going to take large amounts of political capital to implement net zero, and that is why we should welcome the momentum on policy formation we have seen at the end of 2020.
It is quite probable that the topic of the transition will continue to move from the shadows into the mainstream with the UK hosting the COP26 Conference at the end of the year as well as the UK chairing the G7 during the year. So, the hope is this momentum continues with more detailed policy plans emerging.
The work is only just really starting. Policy and regulation provide us with a framework, but success will ultimately be defined by the quality of delivery. That is why the decisions taken need to be based on the best available academic and scientific research available, the fundamentals of our Delivering Net Zero project.
You can follow progress of our project at www.deliveringnetzero.org
Follow us on Twitter - @delivernetzero
Professor Nick Pidgeon
Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University