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20 January 2020 5 min read

Net Zero: what’s needed to make cross-departmental coordination for net zero a reality

Rhiannon Evans

Rhiannon Evans
Senior Consultant | Central Government | London

As we usher in a new year and a new government, it is time for Ministers to return to their seats at the table and translate the promises of the campaign trail into practical plans of action. In the December Queen’s speech, Johnson’s government reiterated the pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

So, what are the practical steps that the government need to take to achieve this target? In our previous blog, we discussed the need for a coordinated approach across government. In this blog, we take a more detailed look at the actions that should be taken.

In order to meet the net zero challenge, we believe there are three things the government should focus on as an immediate priority:

  1. Set up a cross-government working group
  2. Build a realistic evidence based pathway to achieve net zero, that pulls together the various strands of work across government
  3. Learn lessons from previous successes and failures of cross-government working

1. Establish a cross-government working group

We propose that the Government establishes a central working group, bringing together ministers and officials across multiple departments. We believe this is the most effective way to drive coordination and knowledge sharing across the multitude of net zero activities; this is critical for net zero to be successful.

From the outset, the working group should divide the activities between departments and make their respective responsibilities clear. As part of this, the interdependencies between departments need to be quickly identified and then managed on an ongoing basis. Coordinating centrally will enable expertise to be brought into conversations at the right time and place.

Rumours are circulating that Johnson intends to establish a new department1 with sole responsibility for climate targets; effectively undoing the creation of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in 2017 through to the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) and the Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) merger. The average cost of setting up new departments are significant (costs start at £15m but can rise as high as £34m2). We believe there are also significant risks associated with isolating responsibility to a single department; work could be undertaken in a silo and result in duplication, confusion and slow delivery.

2. Build a realistic, evidence based pathway to achieve net zero

The working group will need to hold the pen on an overarching plan for net zero. A detailed pathway should be developed in early 2020 to set out how net zero will be achieved, highlighting clearly where options and decision points will be required. This must include where businesses and citizens are expected to drive the agenda and where policy/market interventions are needed, not forgetting the impact that net zero ambitions could have on the most vulnerable in society.  The rationale for these must be based on data and become part of an evaluation framework to measure impact through implementation.

This pathway can be lifted up a level and used as a communication tool to unite stakeholders across government on the achievability of net zero.

3. Learn lessons from previous successes and failures of cross-government working

Coordinating activities across a business the size of the Civil Service is a difficult challenge; naturally, it is easier for departments to fall back into the traditional departmental hierarchies in which they feel more comfortable. The complexity and interconnectedness of net zero mean that it will not be achieved by working in this way.

There is an opportunity here to learn from similar challenges of the past, the most glaring example being Brexit. The intensity and time-pressure of EU Exit activities led to networks across government working together in new and innovative ways. Departments should give themselves the time to reflect on this (what worked well and what didn’t?) and use these insights to drive more effective collaboration.

The complexity of the net zero challenge cannot be underestimated and action must be taken swiftly and effectively - the clock has already started ticking.

1 https://www.energylivenews.com/2019/12/16/boris-johnson-plans-new-climate-department-to-work-towards-net-zero-future/

2 https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/creating-and-dismantling-government-departments.pdf