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Keeping the UK’s eyes on the net zero prize

January 27, 2023

What the Net Zero Review tells us about the UK’s environmental and economic aspirations

By Lucy Wood and Rhiannon Smith

In January, Chris Skidmore, the head of the government’s Net Zero Review, published an extensive assessment of the UK’s ambitions. The 323-page document covers the whole of the nation’s economy. It also details the impacts on people and communities.

It’s encouraging the outcome concludes that the transition to a net zero economy is the growth opportunity of the 21st century. As the review consultation launched under Jacob Rees-Mogg’s short stint as Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, there was a risk the review might slow or water down the net zero transition using a ‘pro-growth’ rationale.

Instead, it supports the argument that the real risk is delaying action or investment. We need to escape ‘stop-start’ policymaking. There needs to be clear plans for investment, research and development, and infrastructure improvements.

We simply can’t afford to delay net zero action.

Our team, first at Barton Willmore, and now as part of Stantec, has seen first-hand the growth opportunities that sustainable investment can bring. This includes economic growth, but also huge associated social and wellbeing benefits. Beyond investment, we know how strongly influenced climate change mitigation is by behavioural change. Tackling the crisis is as much about bringing people and communities with us – stressing both the economic and social opportunities. This will be essential to accelerating inclusive progress.

The report acknowledges the need to address three key issues that prevent people from realising the benefits of net zero. These are Agency; Affordability; and Accessibility. 

We need to escape ‘stop-start’ policy-making.

We support the recommendations on the back of these. They will allow for wider access, and a faster rollout of decarbonised heating systems and energy efficiency improvements. However, this has to come with the required financing and upskilling.

This question of funding is a common thread throughout the report. One of the recommendations is to create an overarching government Net Zero Financing Strategy by the end of 2023. This will support SMEs to decarbonise, grow investment in net zero R&D, and help businesses access government decarbonisation grants and loads. At the same time, there is a suggestion to set up an Office for Net Zero Delivery. These are all promising. But they must have solid financial backing.

Lack of funding was one reason the High Court found the 2021 UK Net Zero Strategy to be unlawful. The recommendations in the report, including this one, should inform the updated strategy. The government will have to move quickly to plan and find the money needed to hit the deadline at the end of March.

One of the most important findings was to put evidence behind the assumption that investing in net zero today will be cheaper than delaying. This comes in the form of knock-on effects. These include missed economic opportunities due to skills shortages and inconsistent policy commitments. This is at the heart of why we simply cannot afford inaction. We would have liked to see even more emphasis given to the cost of delays as the climate rapidly changes around us.

The report finds ‘stop-start’ policy making as a key barrier to progress on climate change. This blocks investment, delays infrastructure improvements, and undermines government ambitions. This is something we are all too familiar with in planning.

With the current proposed amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework on the table and more uncertainty there, it will be interesting to see if this review can provoke the change needed quickly enough. 

Can the UK become a net zero powerhouse?

It is exciting to see pilot UK net zero city “trailblazers” proposed which will show net zero living is achievable, successful, and inclusive.

It will hopefully become a catalyst for a step change across the county. Cities like Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, and Glasgow may be strong contenders. They already have 2030 targets set and climate action plans underway.

The review backs renewable energy and the associated infrastructure delivery as the driving forces behind this. We strongly support facilitating wind, solar, grid upgrades, community energy systems, hydrogen, and other innovative technologies.

There is a real opportunity for the UK to lead the world here. With so many powerhouses of innovation and investment around the country, everyone will feel the benefits.

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