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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Five things we have learned about the UK’s path to net zero | Climate Change Committee

Energy efficient homes could be an easy win, but we’re ignoring it

There are currently no credible plans to help the majority of households to improve their energy efficiency, the progress report from the Committee on Climate Change concludes: a gaping policy hole that is costing the UK dear, not just in climate terms but in unnecessarily high energy bills for our leaky homes. Insulating buildings would be the quickest and most effective way to counter soaring gas prices, but has been largely ignored by the government after the botched “green homes grant” was scrapped last year. Even our new homes are not efficient: at least 1.5m homes have been built in recent years that will require expensive retrofitting. “It’s a complete tale of woe,” said Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change.

Patio door with double glazing
Patio door with double glazing. The report found ‘no credible plans’ to help the majority of households to improve their energy efficiency. Photograph: Ian Simpson/Alamy

Transport policy is still too focused on private cars

“Surface transport has roared back,” after the lockdowns, according to Stark, with more people returning to their vehicles than boarding trains and buses. While some of these cars are now electric, not enough to make a real difference yet in emissions from transport – not helped by the increasing trend towards petrol-guzzling SUVs and the increasing size of even normal cars. Public transport strategy is also severely lacking, the report notes: “There has been only limited progress in encouraging a modal shift for transport and, most notably, no progress on addressing aviation demand and no action in response to our recommendation to assess airport capacity.”

Road traffic along the M3 motorway near Winchester in Hampshire
Road traffic along the M3 motorway near Winchester in Hampshire. The report found more people have returned to using their cars post-pandemic lockdowns. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

Plans to deal with farming emissions are too slow

Some of the most stinging criticism from the CCC is for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Farming and land use make up about 12% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the government has set what the CCC said were good targets for reducing them. But these targets have not been matched by policy, and emissions from farming and land have been flat since 2008, instead of falling as they need to. The government has been slow to decide how to provide taxpayer-funded incentives to farmers since Brexit, tree-planting and other conservation measures have fallen drastically short, and in the recent food strategy ministers rowed back further from environmental measures.

Renewables are still surging

Offshore wind is booming, solar panels are still increasing in popularity, and the plummeting cost of onshore wind makes it attractive and economical, where developers can get planning permission. The UK’s energy generation is a bright spot, with an increasing proportion of clean energy on the electricity grid that can help to lower prices for consumers overall. Some observers have expressed concern that the government is encouraging coal-fired power plants to increase generation temporarily, amid soaring gas prices and supply issues. Stark said this was not a concern: “It would be far worse to have a blackout.”

People walk on Crosby beach near the Burbo Bank Offshore windfarm
People walk on Crosby beach near the Burbo Bank Offshore windfarm. One of the few bright spots the report identified was the increasing generation of renewable energy in the UK. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The government is reluctant to ask people to change their behaviour

“Diet and demand are not addressed in the [government’s] net zero strategy,” the report notes. The CCC has called for public information campaigns that make people aware of how they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for instance by educating people on the environmental and health impact of meat-heavy diets. Flying less, and using “active” transport such as walking and cycling more, would also help, and people can also be shown how to become more efficient users of energy in their homes and lives. But ministers have been reluctant to engage the public, perhaps out of a fear of being seen as “nannying” or admonishing people, to the evident frustration of the CCC. “This is not nannying, it is merely helping people to make their own choices,” said Lord Deben, chair of the CCC.

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