What the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero means for British climate ambitions
The future of the United Kingdom’s position as a leader of the global green transition is uncertain. The UK has historically led the way in key regulatory areas such as corporate disclosure and was the first economy to commit to becoming net zero by 2050.
However, while the UK used to have a separate Energy Department, in 2016 this was merged with the Business Department under then prime minister Theresa May, a move which sparked concern among environmentalists and jubilation among climate change sceptics.
The Climate Change Committee, which reviews the government’s progress in reducing emissions in line with climate targets, found in its most recent assessment that current plans are unlikely to achieve by 2050. The decision to create a dedicated climate department in last month’s cabinet reshuffle has consequently been welcomed by climate bodies and politicians alike.
The newly-established Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, led by Grant Shapps, already has a lot on its plate – here’s what we can expect to see top the policy agenda.
Securing the UK’s energy independence
The shockwaves created in the global energy market by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove home the necessity of a stable and independent domestic energy market. Earlier this month, Shapps met the US Energy Secretary in London, with the two ministers pledging to explore new avenues for international collaboration to deliver clearer, cheaper energy.
In practice, this means strengthening the UK’s domestic nuclear and energy industries to reduce its vulnerability to volatile fossil fuel markets. The UK is one of the world’s largest markets for offshore wind, second only to China, and a record 40 per cent of the country’s electricity was generated from renewable sources last year, primarily solar, wind, biomass and hydropower.
Nevertheless, breaking the addiction to imported oil and gas calls for major financial and ideological investment from policymakers.
The Biden administration recently signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, a piece of legislation lauded by the renewables industry which marks the single largest investment in climate and energy in US history. The act introduces several measures aimed at boosting growth in the US clean energy market, including expanded tax credits for renewables manufacturers and initiatives to streamline the planning, permitting and execution of renewable energy projects. Whether the UK government will follow suit with comparable legislation remains to be seen.
While the UK has a solid net zero strategy in place, important policy gaps remain and tangible progress lags behind ambition.
Getting back on track to meet net zero
Despite having emissions targets that are internationally recognised as compliant with the Paris Agreement and a realistic strategy to achieve these targets, the government has not yet implemented the necessary policy framework to achieve sufficient progress this decade.
Credible plans are in place for most of the electricity supply and transport industry, but significant risks remain in other key sectors of the economy such as construction, aviation, agriculture and shipping. With pressure mounting to establish an achievable roadmap to net zero, the government has just published its Net Zero Review, which lays out a comprehensive set of recommendations to slash emissions across the economy.
Ramping up the UK’s use of renewables will be a key focus, as well as increasing the deployment of low carbon technologies such as electric vehicles and switching to gas-free homes. The spotlight will also be on the private sector, with businesses incentivised to rapidly decarbonise.
To realize these recommendations, the newly created energy security department must be given the freedom and funding to rapidly scale up renewable energy production and invest in green technologies.
All eyes are on the UK to see whether it will make good on its climate promises. In a historic 2022 ruling, the High Court found the government’s net zero strategy unlawful, judging that its plan to cut carbon emissions was inadequate.
The government has been given a deadline of March 2023 to draw up a new net zero strategy. As the deadline approaches, we wait to see how they will respond to this urgent challenge.