A plane viewed from the front on a runway at sunset

The Climate Change Committee recommended that the government should act to manage demand for air travel to help hit net zero targets. Image © Wichudapa/Shutterstock

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Climate change report lays out what the UK must do to achieve net zero

The UK could miss its net zero targets without urgent action to bring the country back on track.

Policies to improve energy efficiency are among the steps that have been recommended to reduce emissions while also saving households hundreds of pounds.

The UK is on track to cut just 40% of the emissions required to reach net zero, the country's top climate body has warned.

Comprised of policy experts and scientists, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) is an independent body which advises and monitors the UK government on climate change. In its latest update to Parliament, it found that while the UK was one of the world leaders in cutting carbon dioxide, urgent action is needed to match the promises the government has made.

Policy gaps in areas such as energy efficiency and agriculture threaten to undermine attempts to slash greenhouse gas emissions, while 'optimistic' targets for sustainable aviation and carbon storage technologies may bring the journey to net zero off course.

Lord Debden, the former UK Environment Secretary and chair of the CCC, says, 'The UK is a champion in setting new climate goals, but now we must be world-beaters in delivering them. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, the country is crying out to end its dependence on expensive fossil fuels.'

'I welcome the government's restated commitment to net zero, but holes must be plugged in its strategy urgently. The window to deliver real progress is short. We are eagle-eyed for the promised action.'

The CCC also called on the government to begin developing contingency plans if attempts to cut emissions don't go as planned. They recommended that politicians should look more closely at providing incentives for the public to travel less by plane and eat more sustainably, to ensure that net zero is achieved even if some policies aren't as effective as hoped.

A woman walks away from a charging electric car

The electric car market continues to expand, and the CCC has called for the faster development of charging infrastructure. Image © husjur02/Shutterstock

In which areas is the UK on track to hit net zero?

The report from the CCC found that the UK's path to net zero was in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the landmark treaty that committed the nations of the world to net zero and to limit the impact of global warming.

It noted that there was a credible strategy to meet these goals, particularly in key areas representing 39% of the necessary emissions cuts. One of the strongest achievements was the growing electric car market, with zero emission vehicles representing 12% of all new cars sold in 2021 – one and a half times the 8% target.

This has been driven in part by the announcement of bans on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, followed by all new cars needing to be zero-emission from 2035. By 2040, new buses and lorries will also need to be zero-emission, cutting the carbon footprint of public transport and freight.

The government was also recognised for its steps to decarbonise electricity generation, which is set to be complete by 2035. While there was an increase in fossil fuels being used to generate power in 2021, the UK is still on a pathway to phase them out within the next decade.

Work to simplify the planning and approval process for offshore wind farms and ground-mounted solar power installations are among the changes that are hoped to quintuple the amount of solar and wind power by 2035.

A builder lays insulation foam into the floor of a room

The CCC said that much more needed to be done to improve the energy efficiency of the UK's homes. Image © Serhii Krot/Shutterstock

In which areas is the UK currently failing to meet its net zero ambitions?

While transport and power generation are well on the way to net zero, the same isn't true of other sectors. The CCC split the areas which are currently at risk of missing the target into three separate groups, each of which was progressively less likely to fully decarbonise.

Around a quarter of targets could reach net zero, but the risks associated with them make it a possibility that they may miss their target. The development of zero-emission heavy goods vehicles, for instance, is underway but is likely to need ongoing investment and attention to ensure that it comes to pass.

The remaining targets are those that are currently at significant risk of missing their target, or where plans have not been developed at all.

One of the most significant omissions was agriculture, which is responsible for around 12% of the UK's carbon dioxide emissions. The CCC noted that while emission cuts of a third are suggested in the government's net zero strategy, there had been little progress on the issue in the past decade.

The committee criticised the lack of detail on the issue, with many key policies and details still under development or having unclear goals.

There were also concerns about how the demands of agriculture would be balanced with targets to plant 500 square kilometres of trees a year and restore 80% of the UK's peatland by 2050. The release of farmland for these purposes may be possible with increases in productivity, but the current reliance on this was described as 'highly optimistic and not yet backed by credible policies'.

Similar concerns were raised over optimistic outlooks on technologies that are still in the early stages of development, such as carbon storage and sustainable aviation fuels, which may not be able to deliver the emissions cuts needed to hit net zero.

Conversely, the CCC said there was a 'shocking gap' in making existing UK homes more energy efficient despite it being very achievable. Insulation retrofitting has been limited throughout the UK since the 2010s when cuts to funding were made.

While a Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020, it was scrapped after six months after reaching just 7% of its 600,000 household target. At the time, the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee put its failure down to the scheme being 'poorly implemented'.

The CCC called on the government to develop and implement new policies on how existing buildings can be made more efficient, suggesting that mortgages could be made dependent on houses reaching a certain level of efficiency.

An overhead view of a group of people eating a range of vegetarian dishes from a table

Encouraging more sustainable diets is one way that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced. Image © Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

What does the UK need to do to reach net zero?

To achieve the third of targets that may not hit net zero, the CCC says that the government needs to actively manage its existing plans to adapt to a changing world.

While some plans might overachieve, the committee called for the development of contingency plans that can be used to address shortfalls in emissions cuts. In particular, they focused on what individuals can do and how changes in demand can help cut the UK's carbon footprint.

One important way the CCC noted was reducing demand for products such as meat and dairy, as producing these products requires more land and produces more emissions than plant-based alternatives. They recommended that the government aims to encourage the public to eat 20% less meat and dairy by 2030 by switching to other sources of protein.

Not only would this release land for habitat restoration, and help to improve biodiversity, but it would also help support healthier lifestyles that would reduce strain on the NHS.

Similar policies were also recommended for transport. The CCC said the government should aim to cut the demand for car travel through investment in public transport, as well as encouraging people to walk and cycle where possible.

Policies that encourage the public to fly less, such as higher taxes or flight quotas, were also among the measures recommended to help bring down the overall climate impact of transport, which represent more than a quarter of the UK's emissions.

The recommendations weren't all about price increases, however. The CCC said that the cost-of-living crisis should be dealt with alongside steps to reach net zero, with a particular focus on the uptake of heat pumps and insulation to improve home energy efficiency.

It added that it would support any proposals to move the burden of energy subsidies from consumers to the government to cut rising energy bills and incentivise green energy.

With more than 300 recommendations for the UK government, as well as the devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, across the country, there is plenty to be considered in a crucial decade for the struggle against climate change.

While the UK has made a good start, there is still a long way to go before the goal of net zero can be reached.