As campaigning for the general election starts to get into full swing, it can sometimes feel like there is little that our politicians agree on. There is, however, one major exception: the environment. All of the major parties have now committed to deliver net zero carbon emissions, the only disagreement is how fast we get there.
These promises belie the massive challenge in meeting the net zero commitment (even by 2050, never mind some of the more ambitious timelines!) – decarbonising our economy requires changes, in every home, every office, every school and every factory over the coming years. It will require huge investments by government, business, and by individual citizens. And yet, the rewards on offer dwarf these terrifyingly big investments.
The UK has made a good start; over the past 20 years carbon reductions have fallen around 40% from 1990 levels, however, this has primarily been delivered through a revolution in our energy system as we have transitioned from high carbon coal generation to renewables and natural gas. This has been the remit of one industry and, in government, a single department: The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
The remaining challenges unfortunately are not so nicely packaged up and, therefore, cannot successfully be delivered by single departments working alone. The next major challenge is the decarbonisation of heat. With c.26 million domestic gas boilers across the country it is not going to be easy. The development of the systems and technologies required sits again with BEIS but successful delivery requires the involvement of much of the rest of government. This could include Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) from a housing and planning perspective, local councils in the delivery of changes within the social housing stock and managing any associated roadworks (connecting homes to new fuels), BEIS again for building regulations and carbon storage liabilities, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will need to co-ordinate biomass production, while the Treasury will need to remain on top of the fiscal implications of the transition. Depending on the solutions used for heat, this may well have implications for the future of transport and therefore involve the Department for Transport (DfT).
This is a high-level view of the co-ordination required for the net zero transition of just one area of the economy, which will need to be multiplied across all of the sectors producing carbon today. It’s going to be a huge undertaking.
Clearly a concerted and co-ordinated response across government is needed – ensuring that each department is aware of its individual requirements and is working in concert across Whitehall. This is not how government has traditionally operated. However, there are examples and models that can be used as a template for the co-operation required, not least the work being done to prepare for leaving the European Union, and the structures set up to better manage national security. Similar ambition and rigour can be successful here.
We believe government will need to create a central function that draws together all of the activities required to deliver each component of net zero, can be reactive to changing circumstances, and can own and deliver a detailed plan across initiative and government function.
While the decarbonisation of our economy is not only essential but also a public and political priority, it is a challenge of a level of complexity rarely faced even by government. The department-by-department approach that has served us well up to this point is not up to the task of delivering the next phases, and the time is now to augment it with the approaches that have helped deliver complex, cross-governmental activity in the past.