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Net zero back on the political agenda

net zero concept
By Andrew Adie
19 March 2024
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)
net zero

According to Ed Miliband the 2024 General Election will be the ‘most important on climate and energy that the UK has ever had.” 

Some might greet that statement, made today by the Shadow Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero at a Green Alliance event, with some surprise, given that both the Conservatives and Labour have been accused of weakening their environmental pledges. 

Rishi Sunak’s net zero roll-back (announced during New York Climate Week in September 2022) was seen by some as the death-knell for UK climate leadership. Others saw it as a pragmatic response to the cost-of-living crisis and recognition that the UK had already done ‘enough’ to deliver its net zero roadmap. Although what constitutes ‘enough’ in a year that has seen the hottest temperatures ever recorded is a moot point.

Suggestions around the time of the Uxbridge by-election that Conservative strategists regarded the ‘green crap’ as a vote loser during a cost-of-living crisis has mirrored a similar push-back seen in the US and other countries stoked by the woke-capitalism movement and countries and companies that do not embrace the end of the fossil fuel era.

More recently Labour’s environmental policies have come under scrutiny, driven by concerns about how its pledge for £28 billion a year in net zero investment was to be funded in a time of virtually no fiscal wriggle-room and with multiple competing priorities for government spending.

Yet in recent days Labour has appeared to be trying to regain the initiative on net zero. In today’s speech, Ed Miliband restated Labour commitment to a range of policy initiatives, from decarbonising the power sector by 2030, to creating GB Energy as a publicly owned energy company, to the delivery of a national wealth fund, and investing £13.2 billion in energy efficiency for homes during the next Parliament.

The need for this focus was illustrated by the Green Alliance which published its analysis stating that only half of the emissions cuts needed to be delivered by the end of the Fifth Carbon budget in 2032 now have policies in place to deliver that outcome, with 16% having no policy plans in place at all.

Decarbonising buildings and agriculture are the worst offenders with, respectively. 23% and 22% of required emissions reductions having no policies in place to deliver that outcome. 

This has sparked counter arguments from the Conservatives that Labour’s plans to decarbonise the grid by 2030 (five years earlier than its own 2035 ambition) would see a surge in required investment and need tax increases to pay for the accelerated work.

The National Grid Electricity Systems Operator (ESO) has also found itself being pulled into the argument after stating this will not happen until 2035 based on its plans to invest £58 billion upgrading the UK’s grid infrastructure. That huge investment will connect Offshore Windfarms off the East of Scotland with urban centres throughout the UK, with additional grid infrastructure planned to connect from Southern Scotland to Kent and Lincolnshire.

Location pricing that would see discounts for communities located near wind turbines and other infrastructure is also stoking controversy with some arguing that discounts on energy bills isn’t enough to counter Nimbyism. With both Labour and the Conservatives vowing to push through with this investment and streamline planning to facilitate the development of renewable energy infrastructure and grid improvements as a critical part of the net zero plan.

While on one hand a renewed debate and focus on net zero, which is still a statutory duty by 2050, is welcome, tribal politicisation of net zero and the routes to deliver that is not helpful. Replacing a fossil-fuel-driven energy system that has powered our economy for over 250 years needs a pragmatic approach that embraces a wide range of routes to decarbonisation united behind a solid commitment to net zero and a delivery timeline that is set and adhered to across the economy. Achieving that requires many moving parts to work in tandem, from policy to regulation, investment, industrial and economic reinvention, consumer engagement and education. 

For business and consumers, gaining clarity on the energy mix, technologies and investments that are needed to deliver the UK’s net zero transition is critical. Looking through the data and arguments that are appearing this week alone it is clear that huge investment is needed and decisions around a decarbonised energy mix need a clear and consistent energy and environmental policy that ideally has some form of cross-party consensus so that business and investors have confidence that they’re doing the right thing. And that’s before we begin to unpick the knotty issue of how we persuade consumers to invest in and change the infrastructure they use to power their homes, transport and lives.

That clarity is unlikely to come before a General Election but the fact that net zero is proactively being placed back on the agenda is at least something to be relieved about.