26 February 2021

How the UK can level up with climate leadership

By

Green growth is the only way forward to build back better. The economic challenges we will face as a country following the Covid-19 pandemic will be overcome by a strategic set of actions aimed at delivering sustainable growth across the whole of the UK. 

The main focus will be on developing resilience across all regions in the country to bounce back from economic shocks, investing to foster technological innovation, and creating new high value jobs, industries, and companies. Acting on climate change and making sure we deliver on the plan for net zero emissions in the UK by 2050 plays a central role for this to be achieved. 

To meet this objective in reducing emissions, we must take action: following clear, stable, and well-designed policies with measurable targets over time, focusing on key sectors like transport, energy, housing, and agriculture. 

In terms of transport, the future is proving to be electric. One hundred percent electric vehicles with supporting charging infrastructure in shorter time frames will enhance the transition. Lower carbon options will be also explored for airplanes and ships, with further effort coming from increasing corporate R&D budgets.

Large falls in energy supply emissions have driven around half of the reduction in UK emissions since 1990. Coal power station closures have contributed to this, as has government-supported development of renewables. Renewable energy made up almost half of Britain’s electricity generation in the first three months of 2020, with a surge in wind power helping to set a new record for clean energy. This is a step in the right direction, and access to renewable energy will progress thanks to lowering prices and additional benefits.

Furthermore, decarbonising and adapting the UK’s housing sector to new standards is critical for meeting the net zero target. Policies will need to push for the delivery of high-quality, low-carbon new and retrofitted homes. These measures will include tightening building standards, introducing minimum standards for social housing, improving low-carbon heating and energy efficiency, and consumer incentives like green mortgages. 

Methane is a key contributor to agricultural emissions, with livestock producing about half of all UK farm emissions. Financial incentives are placed there to support farmers to act further and improve practices, taking decisive steps for reducing emissions or sequestering carbon. A few natural solutions include increasing forest cover in the UK and restoring peatland. Another solution is regenerative agriculture, which will reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by 22.3 billion tons globally by 2050, and result in an ultimate net saving in excess of $2.5 trillion, with the UK accounting for nearly 11% of that.

Moreover, a more efficient environmental resource management process and waste strategy is essential in setting ambitions for a more circular economy, one we will need to become a world leader in reducing the amount of waste we create as a society. Particular emphasis should be on reducing avoidable plastic waste. This will include reforming and reconfiguring the packaging supply chain, increasing the producer’s responsibility, introducing a higher plastic tax, extending a deposit return scheme for drink containers countrywide, and a ban on specified single use plastics. Further legislation will follow in the coming years to implement such changes and boost recycling rates. The UK is on track to meet a target of at least 50% of household waste to be recycled by the end of 2020. 

Air quality is an ongoing and growing concern on the clean growth plan. There is increasing evidence about how vulnerable groups are at disproportionately high risk of health problems stemming from poor air quality. The most dangerous pollutants include: ammonia, stemming mostly from agricultural practices; fine particulate matter, whose largest primary contributor is from burning wood and coal in domestic open fires; solid fuel stoves; and, exceedances of nitrogen dioxide emissions.

One of the major challenges on the sustainable agenda is ensuring proportionate actions across the country are taken in a timely and effective fashion on industrial processes. We need to redesign internal mechanisms and adapt our industries to new standards. Industrial sectors including cement, food and drink, iron, and steel account for approximately two thirds of industrial carbon emissions. Net zero is challenging industries to reduce emissions without reducing their competitiveness. Our policymakers are aiming to create a net zero carbon industrial cluster by 2040, focusing on a few industrial mechanisms and tools, such as energy and resource efficiency, electrification, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage. 

The Government should emphasise adaptation to a new sustainable path and new behavioral imperatives, developing forward-looking policies to enhance and protect wider society, including its people, economic ecosystem, and internal infrastructure. 

This translates into replacing inefficient incentives and restructuring obsolete strategies to encourage entire industries to transition into sustainable practices. During these unprecedented times, the UK needs to step up and show leadership and credibility at an international level to accelerate action towards the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This article appears in the Spring 2021 edition of Bright Blue’s magazine, Centre Write, which you can read here.

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Kwasi Kwarteng is Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.