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  • Sam Magid

Ambitious UK Net-Zero Strategy Cuts No Ice With Activists, Who Dismiss it as Hot Air and Little Else

Kentish Flats offshore wind farm, outside of the Thames in the United Kingdom. Photo Credits: DailyMail.

As more governments create and initiate net-zero emission plans, a putative global leader has emerged: the United Kingdom. The authoritative Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks the UK in second place globally for net-zero emissions planning, and the UK Department of Business, Energy, and Industry (DBEI), which oversees British climate policy, cites compelling success stories: in 30 years, their power emissions fell nearly three-quarters. Moreover - as the DBEI is pleased to mention - the UK grid decarbonized faster than any other G7 member, while experiencing a major GDP increase. On the heels of this success, the nation published its ambitious net-zero by 2050 plan. However, despite the UK’s EPI ranking, confident plans, and track record, climate groups quickly challenged what they described as the criminally vague and unquantified work of a non-credible government.

The UK’s seemingly positive track record does little to influence skeptical climate activists, three of whom – Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and Good Law Project – have taken the government to court. These environmental firms state that the net-zero plan is riddled with unclear goals, unquantifiable stages, unhelpful dependencies on technology, and an inability to fund itself or meet legally mandated carbon budgets. According to Friends of the Earth, the plan is recklessly "long on rhetoric, short on detail.” The government retorts that technology is central to net-zero plans, quantifiable goals are unnecessary and not legally required, and that the UK's reputation of successful decarbonization should speak for itself.

Impressively, between 1990 to 2019 the UK reduced power emissions by 72%, with its emitted 58 million tons of CO2 representing just 11% of the UK's emissions in 2019. Coal-burning power has been replaced mostly by lower-carbon natural gas and some renewable forms of energy. This seems like the work of a nation serious about climate policy, but to environmental activists things are not so simple, especially when considering trends in UK heating emissions: which is currently responsible for 21% of UK emissions, and has only seen a mere 17% decrease from 1990-2019.

Heating emissions are attributed to fuel poverty and inefficient residential heating caused by gas boilers and poor insulation. The gap between heating and power emissions reduction is a glaring issue for the global climate policy leader: the fact that the UK decarbonized its grid, while simultaneously neglecting heating, hints at the truth behind which emissions it chooses to reduce.

From the 1960s onward, British coal production tumbled dramatically as mines ran out, resulting in a rapid and unjust transition from coal to coincidentally lower-carbon fuels. While this had a positive emissions impact, the UK's coal phaseout was market-based: coal's market collapse, not its heavy emissions, motivated its uniquely early replacement with gas. By 1990, coal consumption had been falling for decades, and its near-extinction between 1990 and 2019 resulted from a crash, not environmental anti-coal policy: the UK still uses coal and seeks to open a mine in 2022. Therefore, it is unsurprising that heating, which uses plentiful and stable natural gas, experienced a minimal emissions decrease: unlike coal, there is no ‘urgent’ need to replace carbon-heavy systems.

As EPI principal investigator Martin Wolf explains, coal was "low-hanging fruit" for the UK, because it reduced its emissions specifically by phasing out coal for non-environmental reasons. In the words of another Martin Wolf, CBE and Financial Times economist, "little else happened [with other environmental goals while the UK phased out coal]… [the UK] must try harder." Mr. Wolf is being charitable: in some fields, notably transport, emissions increased between 1990 and 2019.

Because coal was not phased out for environmental purposes, the thornier heating issue may be a better predictor for the outcome of the new net-zero plan. The new green heating plan relies on nonexistent or expensive technology like hydrogen or air-water heat pumps; a strategy climate activists warn against. Additionally, critics allege no coherent heating payment plan exists, and the program itself is "woefully inadequate." The net-zero plan includes grants, but many doubt the government's credibility after the recent failure of a similar green homes grant program. Without subsidies, households would have to pay impossible sums to decarbonize.

The UK government emphasizes that "the most vulnerable [will be] protected through Government support" during net-zero implementation. In practice, critics find that the government has ignored the most vulnerable: those with the most inefficient, carbon-heavy heating are disproportionately disabled, low income, or POC Britons. Notably, the government failed to conduct an equality impact assessment for the net-zero plan, which violates a 2010 law requiring such assessments. For some observers, this violation is reminiscent of the unjust coal phaseouts and transitory period, and represents an impending disastrous end to the eventual gas phaseout that the net-zero plan proposes.

Friends of the Earth believe that this violation indicates poor planning that permeates the entire plan. Certainly, uncertain funding plagues the plan: the Treasury rejected calls from Parliament for a detailed cost plan which jeopardized the entire program. This rejection is reminiscent of a long history of the Treasury nixing expert-approved policies and funding environmentally detrimental policies: even supporters of the Conservative party are questioning the Government’s priorities on climate and funding.

Friends of the Earth has found further proof of poor planning: the firm revealed that the government hid the fact that the net-zero plan only fulfills 95% of the UK carbon budget for 2037. The government rebutted by asserting that undeveloped policies would close the gap. While it may seem inconsequential, Friends of the Earth believe this shortcoming and accompanying hollow solution signals sloppiness throughout the administration’s net-zero plan, and climate policy. In their view, the government relied on “unquantified additional proposals… to assume the shortfall would be made up." Other reports support their conclusion: although the plan promises some 440,000 'green jobs' by 2030, Members of Parliament (MPs) warned that a 'green job' has not even been defined.

Some also criticize the plan’s avoidance of public behavioral aspects of climate policy. For example, the government declared that meat would not be regulated, despite the enormous emissions of the industry, and centered Electric Vehicles (EVs) rather than mass transit in its transport solution, which exemplifies how an how avoidance of modifying public behavior in net-zero plans requires an unacceptable, unrealistic reliance on technology. Further, many criticize the plan’s reliance on expensive, ineffective, or nonexistent tech, such as Carbon Capture and Storage, hydrogen power, and EVs, which reduce emissions somewhat but miss targets and cause environmental damage through cobalt and lithium mining.

The plan also relies on UK emissions being offset by other nations, which is not guaranteed. Friends of the Earth calls offsetting "chasing carbon unicorns," identifying it as a strategy that masks climate inaction. Kevin Anderson, a professor of climate and energy at the University of Manchester, finds that with offsetting removed, the net-zero plan allows for a global temperature increase of 1°C more than the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5-2°C, with catastrophic consequences. Further, ClientEarth concluded that the Government showed no credibility in its net-zero plans, and a House of Lords industry committee concurred in a report warning that the UK will miss upcoming targets, having failed to create credible plans for decarbonization.

The government responded to critics by noting that the net-zero plan has been reviewed and approved by the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) and insisting that the nation is well on track to reach net-zero by 2050. Regarding the legal challenges brought by Friends of the Earth, EarthClient, and Good Law Project, a DBEI spokesperson refused to comment but stated that the CCC-approved plan builds on "the UK's proven track record of decarbonising faster than any other G7 country." However, once again, the government is misrepresenting its decarbonization record and, in the view of many activists and experts, is covering up a program shot through with criminal levels of vagueness, inequity, a lack of crucial quantified steps, and poor planning. As the lawsuits progress, the courts will determine if that is the case.


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