Has Britain lost its climate crown?
After setting CO2-cutting targets into law in 2019, Britain has struggled to make them happen
(Reuters) – Britain, which was quick to set ambitious climate goals, is now stumbling on the path to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and facing hurdles that could resonate with nations trying to balance their targets with politics and the cost of action.
After setting world-leading CO2-cutting targets into law in 2019, Britain has struggled to get on track to make them happen. Electric vehicle charging points are being installed slower than targeted, and despite early success in rolling out offshore wind, the government’s latest renewable energy auction awarded zero contracts to wind developers.
Analysts and politicians say that the British government’s move last week to delay targets for green vehicles and heating systems ahead of a looming election reflects a crunch point that other countries may face as they attempt to turn far-off climate goals into concrete measures - with costs for companies and consumers as soon as this decade.
"The UK has been one of the real leaders in climate diplomacy and in their own emissions reductions," Ireland’s climate minister Eamon Ryan told Reuters. "As a friend and a neighbour, I’d have to say some of that has been put at risk."
Britain, which hosted the United Nations annual climate conference COP26 in 2021, still leads the G7 when it comes to slashing output of climate-warming gases — reducing emissions by 49% between 1990 and 2022 with cutting down on coal the biggest driver.
But according to the Climate Change Committee’s June 2023 progress report to parliament, to hit mid-way climate targets, Britain must quadruple its annual emissions reductions outside the electricity supply sector by 2030.
The committee, an independent body set up under Britain's climate change law, had already said in 2022 that the country's strategy "will not deliver net zero".
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said last week he remained committed to the legally binding target of reaching net zero by 2050 but said Britain could afford to make slower progress in getting there because it was "so far ahead of every other country in the world".
He said he was changing the policy because previous governments had moved too quickly to set net zero targets, without securing the support of the public.
Delaying net zero transition investments could prove politically popular, analysts observed, if an election was on the horizon.
But "this framing only works if you think climate policy is a burden", said Bob Ward, a climate policy researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, adding that avoiding short-term costs was likely to lead to a greater bill for taxpayers down the road.
ROLLBACK OR REALITY?
Sunak's own Conservatives defended his decision as advocating for consumers facing a cost of living crisis.
"It's right we tweak as, at the moment, these green policies and targets hurt those worse off," one conservative lawmaker told Reuters.
Global gas prices rocketed last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although they have fallen in recent months, average British household energy bills are expected to remain high in part due to the country’s reliance on gas for home heating.
Charging infrastructure lags behind what is needed for a growing fleet of electric vehicles and a target of some 600,000 heat pump installations by 2028 looks distant due to a lack of skilled engineers, with only 72,000 installed in 2022.
Britain's move comes as climate change policies come under threat from politicians in other European nations – even as countries face mounting costs from intensifying wildfires, deadly heat and floods fuelled by climate change.
With Poland, Slovakia, the Netherlands, and the European Union's Parliament all holding elections in the coming months, analysts said political pushback could intensify as countries consider policies that - unless coupled with more support to incentivise greener choices - would hit citizens' wallets.
"Transport and buildings are going to be our major problem because that's where climate policy becomes visible to people in their daily life," said Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.
Governments not on track to deliver their green targets face a choice: either cut back on commitments, or strengthen policies and financing to deliver them. The U.S., with its Inflation Reduction Act, is offering nearly $400 billion in federal funding for clean energy and technologies.
The German government said on Sunday it would put on hold plans to require more stringent building insulation standards to help the building industry - even after passing new energy-saving targets for 2030 last week.
While Sunak’s move rattled investors and companies, some said the prime minister’s announcement was aligned with reality.
"Delaying the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars is disappointing, but reflects the reality that this is where most of the major car manufacturing nations are," said Britain's environmental audit committee chairman Philip Dunne.