The CCC's annual report is scathing on the lack of policy progress over the past year - the UK cannot afford another 12 months of inaction
No aspect of the Climate Change Committee's (CCC) absolutely damning assessment of the UK's decarbonisation efforts over the past year is as dispiriting as the government's response to it.
If the CCC's central allegation is that the government is guilty of complacency and a fundamental lack of focus, the official response from the Department of Net Zero and Energy Security amounts to 'it's a fair cop, Guv'.
"We are going far beyond other countries and delivering tangible progress whilst bringing down energy bills with hundreds of pounds coming off bills from next month," the statement reads. "With a new department dedicated to delivering net zero and energy security, we are driving economic growth, creating jobs, bringing down energy bills, and reducing our dependence on imported fossil fuels."
The hugely detailed and widely shared criticisms of the government's underpowered climate policies are simply ignored. The CCC's critical observation that the problem is not with historic decarbonisation rates - which have been broadly impressive - but with the near complete lack of progress over the past year is greeted with little more than a shrug.
Worse still was the reaction of Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps, who yesterday morning responded to an absolutely blistering critique of the way the government is jeopardising the UK's energy, climate, and economic security with some more knockabout fun on Twitter attempting to link Labour to Just Stop Oil. While the Conservatives are "working night and day to grow the economy", Shapps declared, Labour's plans to end the issuing of new oil and gas license - which are entirely in line with the recommendations of the CCC's chair - would "wipe away £87bn in a moment and massively increase our carbon imports".
Leaving aside the fact that if this is the kind of stagnation we get when the government is "working night and day to grow the economy" could they please all take a nap, Shapps once again failed to explain how he intended to make new oil and gas projects compatible with the UK's legally binding net zero goals. At the time of writing, he is still yet to tweet any comment on the CCC's report. The government's official advisors have ruled that the government has failed and is failing on an issue of the gravest import, and the Minister in charge's response is to tweet about the cricket.
It is important to remember, on grounds of mental health selfcare as much as anything else, that the CCC report does highlight how some encouraging progress is still being made. Electric vehicle sales are exceeding expectations; the renewable energy project pipeline continues to grow; soaring energy costs are helping to catalyse demand for on-site renewables and heat pumps; public support for climate action remains remarkably robust; plans for new carbon capture projects are advancing, albeit slowly; the current Carbon Budget will be met.
But the overall picture is unremittingly bleak. The progress delivered by Ministers over the past year has been negligible. The response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine largely squandered the chance to turbocharge investment in energy saving measures and domestic clean energy capacity, and the 'Green Day' update to the UK's Net Zero Strategy a year later only compounded the error. Even in areas where the government is nominally committed to delivering ambitious new policies, the chaos created by three Prime Ministers inside 12 months, the resurgence of the climate sceptic right, and the government's inability to get a grip on inflation has served to destroy Whitehall's bandwidth and neuter the ambitions of the few climate hawks in the government's ranks.
As CCC chair Lord Deben politely observed: "Even in these times of extraordinary fossil fuel prices, government has been too slow to embrace cleaner, cheaper alternatives and too keen to support new production of coal, oil and gas. There is a worrying hesitancy by Ministers to lead the country to the next stage of net zero commitments." A somewhat less tactful assessment was provided by Labour's Ed Miliband, who said the report "exposes the catastrophic negligence shown by this government which has left Britain with higher bills, fewer good jobs, our energy security weakened, and the climate emergency unaddressed". They are both right.
Alongside all the detailed analysis, the report reveals five big overarching problems.
The first is the government's self-defeating failure to deliver the proven policies that could almost immediately help cut emissions, boost the economy, and tackle inflation. The inaction on energy efficiency, building standards, onshore renewables, planning reform, and behaviour change remains a damning indictment of the government's political cowardice, prioritisation of electoral self-interest, and failed austerity economics.
The second is that the government is not moving nearly fast enough to deliver the projects, programmes, and investments that it fully accepts are necessary to ensure long term net zero targets are met.
In fairness, the record here is a little better. Funding has been approved for new carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, green farming subsidy reforms are progressing, a number of new green skills and training programmes have been launched. Most weeks see fresh news on how the government is supporting innovations in areas as varied as hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuels, green shipping, battery technology, nuclear, and regenerative agriculture.
But once again the pace and scale of the government's efforts are well short of what is both required and what is now happening in the US and EU. Ministers have known for over a decade that CCS and hydrogen production is of enormous strategic importance, and yet the crucial policy framework that would enable a portfolio of world-leading projects to proceed has still not been finalised. Hinkley Point is yet to be followed by either a second new large scale nuclear project or the much-talked about fleet of small modular reactors. As the SMMT stressed yesterday, the UK's automotive industry is at serious risk of jumping ship if the country cannot match the battery factory development now underway right across Europe. Ministers keep saying they are aware of the need for action in all these areas and more, but the pace of actual delivery remains glacial.
Third, the government keeps approving new fossil fuel projects and ducking any difficult decisions that would ensure the promised phase down of oil and gas materialises. Yes, coal is now almost completely gone from the grid. But at the same time a new coal mine and new oil and gas projects are being waved through without even the pretence of a credible explanation as to what should be done about the resulting emissions. Not only does this make meeting climate targets considerably harder, it also obliterates any vestiges of moral authority the UK had left when asking other countries to forego investment in carbon intensive infrastructure. COP26 feels a very long time ago.
Fourth, the government has responded to a genuine energy security crisis by singularly failing to embrace the policies that could make the biggest contribution to improving energy security. It remains the case that in the midst of the Covid pandemic Boris Johnson promised a 'Rooseveltian' green stimulus package and then everyone in government just memory holed the fact he had ever said it. Last Spring, the government promised to respond to Putin's invasion of Ukraine and the resulting chaos on the energy markets by delivering a new Energy Security Strategy and then proceeded to publish a plan that prioritised Jacob Rees-Mogg's hostility to wind farms and the Treasury's distaste for energy efficiency schemes over all of our energy bills.
Finally, and most importantly, all this inaction has occurred against a backdrop where other countries are not making the same mistakes. The UK has genuinely led the world in pursuing a net zero transition and then, just at the point where the financial and security rewards of that strategy start to become clear, it has deliberately taken its foot off the accelerator. When European leaders were powering up green infrastructure investment and imploring their peoples to take steps to save energy in solidarity with Ukraine, the UK government was imploding over Liz Truss' fracking strategy. When Joe Biden was passing an Inflation Reduction Act that has already served to reshape global economic policy thinking, Jeremy Hunt was insisting the UK was doing just fine at attracting green investment and need not respond. The complacency and fundamental lack of seriousness evident in today's response to the CCC has been a long time in the making.
The crucial question is what happens next?
There was a fascinating edition of the Rest is Politics podcast recently in which Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart interviewed former Prime Minister John Major. In it Major recalled how he realised within days of his 1992 victory that it would take a political miracle for the Conservatives to win again. As a consequence, he vowed to himself that he would do what he thought was right for the country, rather than favour a more politically expedient course. What followed was a series of painful and highly contentious decisions for which Major took a lot of flak, but which, in his telling at least, allowed the Conservatives to bequeath the next government an economy where inflation was under control, unemployment was low, and growth was building. Major is now fondly regarded as an elder statesman.
The message to the current incumbent of Number 10 was clear, but the same rationale could just as effectively be applied to climate policy.
The government knows what needs to be done to get the UK's decarbonisation trajectory back on track. Some of the policies required - planning reform, energy efficiency funding, the phase down of gas boilers - are politically difficult. But they remain the right thing to do and they promise to deliver massive long-term benefits. And yet the government remains too distracted or too scared to enact them. The chronic short termism of a Treasury that has overseen the slow economic deterioration of the past decade still reigns supreme.
Meanwhile, time is running out. One of the most startling warnings contained in today's report is that if medium term carbon targets are to be met the rate of emissions reductions delivered each year now needs to quadruple across all sectors of the economy, aside from electricity.
I used to argue that each year was equivalent to around three per cent of the available time to deliver on the UK's net zero targets. But time does what it does. Now each year is up to nearly four per cent of the time available. By the next election we will be at the point where every quarter sees one per cent of the time left tick away. In the face of the worst environmental crisis and what increasingly looks like one of the worst slow-burn economic crises the UK has ever faced, we simply cannot afford another year of inaction. This near-criminal complacency must end.