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Jim McClelland argues that business needs to continue with its own goals and ambitions

The big ‘Green Day’ relaunch of the UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy met with more boos than cheers.

The heat is on for hitting those climate targets. However, that is no reason for business to go quiet now on its goals and ambitions, argues Jim McClelland.

Government policy announcements are usually met with a pretty lukewarm response. They attempt too little, too late; and leave their audience wanting more, in a bad way.

The critical reception is often tempered, as those with a vested interest in future policy try to appear constructive, not antagonistic.

There could still be much to play for over months and years to come, so PCP-style comments prove popular: praise; counsel; praise.

When the UK Government released its not-so-new-and-improved Net Zero Strategy late last month, however, the critics were uncommonly unkind in their assessment.

With alarm bells from the latest IPCC report still ringing in their ears, the crowd basically began to boo.

So, why was it different this time?

If you genuinely want to be seen to walk the talk; first you actually have to talk.

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker

Busted in the High Court

Well, the reason behind the strategy revamp got the Government off to a poor start.

Originally dubbed Green Day, but tellingly rebranded to Energy Security Day, the 30th March 2023 saw the Government officially update its Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, originally published in October 2021.

This was not done voluntarily, though.

The urge to revisit the strategy should not be mistaken for a positive sign on the part of the policymakers.

This was not some earnest expression of an ongoing commitment to climate goals and the need to account for progress in a timely and transparent manner.

No, it only happened because the UK Government lost a big legal battle.

The Government was obligated to issue an update after a landmark case in the High Court — following action brought by ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth, Good Law Project and campaigner Jo Wheatley — found the existing provisions not just inadequate, but unlawful.

The judge ruled the UK Government was in breach of its own Climate Change Act 2008.

As a consequence, literally thousands of pages of documents poured out of Westminster and Whitehall in time for the court-imposed end-of-March deadline.

These included a Carbon Budget Delivery Plan and Green Finance Strategy, plus an Energy Security Plan.

All in all, it made for some unhappy reading.

Despite protestations to the contrary, analysis of the Powering Up Britain: Net Zero Growth Plan suggests the Government is only likely to achieve 92% of its promised targets.

In other words it is not on track to hit Net Zero.

This should not come as too much of a surprise, given that the House of Lords had already warned of a likely shortfall happening without urgent action, a full year before.

Credibility questioned, and lost

The issue is not just one of targets, though, but trust: Government credibility is under scrutiny. Unfortunately, it continues to make promises it looks unlikely to keep.

In the new Energy Bill factsheet, for instance, the Government references the ambition set out in its 2020 Ten-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution to support the growth of the heat pump market to around 600,000 installation per year by 2028.

The factsheet claims this brings ‘clear opportunities for businesses throughout the supply chain to innovate’.

However, with only 54,000 installations taking place in 2021, falling to 42,779 in 2022, it has been estimated that it could take the UK 600 years to reach its 2050 target.

In fairness, heat pumps are nevertheless popular, so it might be argued this undershoot has more to do with setting an over-ambitious initial target, than full-blown policy failure.

When it comes to realising ambitions for wind energy, however, critics are more hostile.

The April 2023 report from the Government’s independent Offshore Wind Champion warns that, whilst deployment of 40GW might still be possible by the end of 2030, the 50GW ambition from the British Energy Security Strategy will be missed.

This news prompted the General Secretary of the GMB trade union Gary Smith to describe the promise of tens of thousands of skilled jobs to be created in the UK as looking like a 'sick joke'.

Moreover, certain signals being sent by Westminster are just plain wrong. They fly in the face of the climate agenda and flout the Paris Agreement such that the Government appears disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst; and guilty of greenwash, either way.

The Government not only approved the first new deep coal mine in the UK in 30 years, but is also refusing to rule out granting permission for Rosebank oilfield in the North Sea. Overall, it has given £20 billion more in support to fossil fuels than renewables, since 2015.

These are not mere ‘mixed messages’; these are contradictory and conflicting statements.

Business should be wary of feeling too smug, though.

The climate blame game is only just getting going: Government Ministers are already in the public arena; but CEOs are next.

Good to talk, not hush

When it comes to trying not to get caught out on climate shortcomings, there is one option open to most businesses, however, that is not so readily available to Government (and some of the larger brands more in the public eye and activist sights): hide.

This is what lies behind some of the rise in ‘greenhushing’ — which is so on-trend, it even gets a mention in Vogue.

Greenhushing is basically the (dark) art of saying nothing, for fear of saying the wrong thing.

This is not always as innocent as it may seem, though.

Greenhushing is a tactic: it is not a matter of being shy; this is hiding.

With the European Commission having announced its plans for a Green Claims Directive as part of a regulatory crackdown on greenwash, some companies might be tempted to go dark, or quiet.

This under-the radar approach can lead to organisations easing back on their sustainability efforts, as they first duck accountability, then relinquish responsibility.

So, the most important thing that a small-to-medium-sized business can do to help keep its politicians honest (and clients on course) is to continue to talk openly about climate targets and goals.

If you genuinely want to be seen to walk the talk; first you actually have to talk.

As the IPCC makes plain, doing nothing is not an option; but, neither is saying nothing.

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker