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Jim McClelland looks at the UK’s planned path to zero carbon ahead of COP26

The UK has ambition. Two years ago in the summer of 2019, it became the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law, with a deadline date of 2050.

Since then, it has even upped the ante somewhat, with a string of tough interim targets. Last December, the Government declared the goal of cutting emissions by 68% by the end of the decade, 2030, establishing a route-marker on the pathway to net zero.

Hard on the heels of that announcement came the target in April this year, also enshrined in law, of slashing emissions still further by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels, in line with Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommendations in the Sixth Carbon Budget.

Given, the global COP26 climate summit coming to Glasgow this November, the pressure is on and political power-play in full swing. Scotland has even more ambitious plans to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2045, five years ahead of the wider UK target.

So, what is the progress report?

How are we doing?

There is no quick fix. Net zero will not be easy; however, there is hope, not just hype.

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

Credibility gap to bridge

Well, analysis by the think tank Green Alliance was already suggesting late last year that the UK's longer-term 2050 net zero goal might be in jeopardy. A credibility gap was beginning to emerge between the aspiration and the action (or lack thereof).

Then this June, updates from the CCC found the UK to be off the pace and lagging behind its 2035 target, too — with Committee Chair Lord Deben applauding the government’s ambition, but bemoaning the alarming lack of policy needed to back it up.

In particular, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has just issued its report on batteries and fuel cells warning the government’s strategy risks going flat.

Covid-19 and global context

When it comes to possible causes and explanations for current trajectory discrepancies, the impact of Covid-19 has featured in despatches, credited by some, blamed by others.

On the one hand, the fact that the UK recorded levels of greenhouse gas emissions 51% below the 1990 baseline — so, just over halfway to the 2050 target — has been attributed by some commentators to the suppressive effects of the coronavirus on economic activity.

On the other hand, Covid-19 is also touted as the reason the UK is off course for net zero, with government plans for economic recovery post-pandemic not suitably aligned.

To place all these mixed messages in an International context, the UK is far from the only nation struggling to bridge the credibility gap between aspiration and action.

With the exception of the likes of Suriname and Bhutan who already have net zero in the bag, most countries have proved slow to pass meaningful legislation and are getting called out for failing to keep promises made back at the time of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Where then, does this leave private-sector plans and corporate commitments?

Business in Race to Zero

On the face of it, the business community might appear to be displaying similar tendencies — also open to criticisms of climate style over substance, all promise and little practice.

The number of UK big businesses making statements of intent around net zero is reported to have surged over the past year, ahead of COP26. However, whilst fully pledged-up FTSE100 firms total 70 and are up 50% on last June, almost one third lack a formal plan.

On the upside, though, there are some more positive signs of companies walking the talk.

By March this year, another third of FTSE100 companies looked to be taking their responsibilities rather more seriously, having signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Race to Zero decarbonisation campaign.

By May, participants in this planet-wide initiative collectively covered nearly 25% of global CO2 emissions and over 50% of GDP. Currently, big-business signatories number over 3,000 in total, with towards 200 of the world’s largest investors also committed, alongside more than 700 cities and in excess of 600 Higher Education Institutions.

Race to Zero requires that participants align with global efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. As well as pledging, though, they must also plan. Within 12 months of joining, they have to explain what actions will be taken towards achieving both interim and longer-term targets, especially in the short- to medium-term timeframe.

Then, as they proceed to evidence their efforts, they must also publish — reporting publicly, at least annually and ideally via platforms that feed into the UNFCCC Global Climate Action Portal. This is the Pledge, Plan, Proceed, Publish approach.

A slightly less onerous UK Business Climate Hub commitment also runs in parallel, designed to help SMEs get involved in a way they can manage and resource.

Backed by Science-based Targets

In the UK real estate sector, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland is an example of one of the major private-sector players that has joined Race to Zero — committing to halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050, at the very latest.

Grosvenor has published its own detailed Think Zero pathway to achieving net zero carbon, independently validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

This combination of the powerful pull of a global network, backed by the rigorous push of science, shows how the pursuit of ambitious climate goals can be broken-down into clear interim targets, that are both deliverable and demonstrable.

Heat is on for supply chain

In all of this, urgency is building; and, much like the planet, net zero is hotting up.

Just last month, Highways England laid out its roadmap to 2050, set to cut carbon from construction, maintenance and operation, plus help us transition to zero-emission vehicles.

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has also launched a consultation on its Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, which aims to provide a common vision and agreed actions for achieving net zero carbon in the construction, operation and demolition of buildings and infrastructure. The deadline for responding is 15 August 2021.

Ultimately, net zero is very much a team game. To take climate targets forward from the vision stage, via a strategic plan, through process and performance, requires data, benchmarking and standards, plus, crucially, supply-chain engagement and management.

So, yes, Scope 3 emissions are the problem; and no, offsets are not the (only) answer.

There is no quick fix. Net zero will not be easy; however, there is hope, not just hype.

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