Boris Johnson’s government has set “historic” targets on the climate crisis but has failed so far to come up with the policies needed to reach them, the government’s independent advisers on the climate have warned.
The Climate Change Committee published two progress reports on Thursday, showing the UK lagging behind on its key goal of 78% cuts to greenhouse gases by 2035 and making recommendations on how to get back on track.
Lord Deben, the committee chairman, said: “[The targets] are remarkable and have set a major example [to the world]. But the policy is just not there. It’s very clear we need to step up very rapidly.”
The government is to host vital UN climate talks this November in Glasgow, called Cop26, at which all countries will be asked to come up with concrete plans to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Deben warned that if the UK did not have its own clear roadmap and policies, other countries would not come forward with credible plans. “People are going to judge us by whether we link promises with policy and a programme to deliver. If all we do is promise, other people will not take us seriously … it puts the whole process [of Cop26] into jeopardy,” he said.
He scored the government nine out of 10 on its targets, but only “somewhere below” four out of 10 on its efforts to meet them.
Greenhouse gas emissions plunged last year, but because of the impacts of the pandemic rather than policy. The committee found that while emissions from energy generation had fallen sharply in recent years, those from other key sectors – transport, buildings, industry and agriculture – were not coming down in line with the targets.
Chris Stark, the chief executive of the CCC, said: “[The fall in emissions] is a real whopper. But progress is illusory. Government strategy [on cutting emissions] has been late and what has come has almost all been too little.”
The committee has made more than 200 recommendations to ministers, including:
Every new government policy should also be subject to a “net zero test” to prove it is compatible with the overarching climate target.
Stark said the changes needed to reach net zero were “not extreme” and would not be disruptive, if they were managed correctly. He said they were not costly, at less than 1% of GDP in the next three decades, which he said was the equivalent in 2050 of reaching the UK’s forecast GDP four months later than would have been expected.
Green campaigners also said the government’s actions were at odds with its words. Mike Childs, the head of policy at Friends of the Earth, said: “With no climate action plan and his government’s support for more roads, runways, and an overseas gas mega-project, Boris Johnson risks being a laughing stock at the UN climate summit he is hosting in Glasgow later this year. The chancellor’s role in delivering net zero is crucial – unfortunately, this year’s budget did little to demonstrate the Treasury’s enthusiasm for building back greener.”
Chris Venables, the head of politics at Green Alliance, a thinktank, said: “It’s becoming clearer than ever that there’s an embarrassing lack of progress at home from the UK government in this crucial year for tackling climate change. The prime minister says he’s pulling out all the stops to make Cop26 a success, but every major strategy has been indefinitely delayed or ditched. Businesses and communities are being held back from switching to clean alternatives and supporting a green recovery.”
The government has been criticised for a series of actions and proposals that campaigners have said run contrary to ministers’ green claims and damage the UK’s reputation ahead of Cop26. These include: the initial go-ahead for a mooted new coalmine in Cumbria, now subject to a public inquiry; new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea; a £27bn road-building plan; slashing incentives for electric cars; airport expansion; cutting air passenger duty on domestic flights; scrapping the green homes grant insulation programme; and cutting overseas aid.
A new net zero strategy was expected earlier this year and is now likely to come this autumn, with little time before the Cop26 conference. A new heat and building strategy is also promised, but has been delayed.
A government spokesperson said: “Any suggestion we have been slow to deliver climate action is widely off the mark. Over the past three decades, we have driven down emissions by 44% – the fastest reduction of any G7 country. Our forthcoming strategies on Heat & Buildings, Hydrogen, Transport and comprehensive Net Zero Strategy this year will set out more of the very policies the Climate Change Committee is calling for as we redouble our efforts to end the UK’s contribution to climate change.”
They added that the UK had over-achieved against its first and second Carbon Budgets and was on track to outperform the third Carbon Budget which ends in 2022.