The UK has positioned itself as a world leader in the fight against climate change – now it must deliver

The government’s ambitious new emissions goal is welcome – but we need to act fast if it is to be achievable

Net Hero Podcast

In April, to coincide with World Earth Day and the US President’s global climate summit, the UK Government announced it will raise the ambition of one of its central climate goals by legislating to reduce carbon emissions by 78% by 2035.

This is the latest in a series of eye-catching targets set by government and follows recent commitments to building more offshore wind, developing low-carbon industrial clusters and phasing out petrol cars; all of which position the UK as a world leader in the fight against climate change.

These targets are important for two reasons. Firstly, as we prepare to host COP26 in Glasgow later this year, the UK can lead by example and encourage other countries to join us in setting stretching targets for reducing emissions and backing the key technologies which will decarbonise the global economy. The UK has a strong track record in decarbonising the power sector, and we should work with other countries to help them to chart the same course.

Secondly, they provide long term policy certainty which helps to drive investment in infrastructure to enable our transition to a net zero world. Last year SSE announced plans to invest £7.5bn in low carbon infrastructure over the next five years, including building the world’s largest offshore wind farm at Dogger Bank, delivering world-leading carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen power plants and upgrading our electricity networks. Clear policy signals from Government will help to bring forward investment in projects like this, which will be at the heart of the net zero power system on which our wider decarbonisation effort relies.

Whilst the UK’s new 2035 emissions goal is welcome, we need to act fast if it is to be achievable. That will mean backing up words with actions to create a policy and regulatory landscape which is aligned to ambitions for net zero and which accelerates the progress made to date in phasing out coal-fired generation and creating a cleaner energy system.

“COP26 provides an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate global leadership in combating climate change and deliver a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.”

Renewables will do the heavy lifting in decarbonising our economy and the UK has a bold ambition to deliver at least 40GW of offshore wind by 2030. But there are barriers which will need to be addressed in the near term if we want to meet that target, including reforming the electricity market so that it supports sustainable investment in new and existing renewables; aligning planning processes to net zero to accelerate low carbon developments; and agreeing a more coordinated approach to connecting the growing number of offshore wind sites to the onshore grid.

Our electricity networks will play an equally important role in delivering net zero by connecting new sources of renewable energy and accommodating the electrification of heat and transport. As regulated businesses, it is vital that Ofgem’s regulatory framework for networks enables sufficient investment in grid infrastructure so that our networks are ready for the rapid increase in demand for electricity which we know is coming. The way we charge power generators for use of the network also needs to be updated to ensure it is fit for purpose in a net zero system and doesn’t continue to disincentivise building wind farms in the windiest parts of the country like the north of Scotland. Government can help here by explicitly including net zero within the statutory duties of our regulators.

Other low-carbon technologies like CCS, hydrogen power generation, and hydro pumped storage will also be needed to provide flexibility within a reliable, net zero power system. But we need to make rapid progress on the policy mechanisms to underpin investment in these important technologies and replicate the success we’ve seen in driving down costs in the offshore wind sector.

COP26 provides an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate global leadership in combating climate change and deliver a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. By taking some of the steps outlined above we can build on the impressive progress we’ve made so far in decarbonising power and continue to make progress towards the important goals which have been set on the road to net zero.