On Wednesday 5 July, Thirty4/7 Communications virtually attended the Institute for Government’s Net Zero Conference, an event organised to examine the current state of the Government’s climate objectives and the pathway to net zero.
In attendance were two key political figures from the two major parties: outgoing Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, who recently led the Government’s Review of Net Zero; and Ed Miliband MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change and Net Zero.
Opening keynote by Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP
During his opening keynote address Chris Skidmore MP recounted the progress made since June 2019 when the UK signed net zero by 2050 into law, with 92% of global GDP, 80% of countries, and 40% of global businesses now signed up to net zero. Outlining the importance of his Mission Zero review, Skidmore argued that the Government had never set out a cost-benefit analysis of net zero, nor properly demonstrated how the transition would also be a transformation. It was crucial, therefore, to reset the narrative, and to demonstrate that net zero is not just an environmental metric, but also an economic opportunity.
Skidmore noted how he adopted a localised approach to convince citizens of the opportunities of net zero. The transition must, in Skidmore’s view, be about people and communities, place and regeneration, and the proliferation of economic opportunities across all corners of the UK. The findings of his review have, too, been clear: an urgent need for continuity and consistency across policy frameworks, legislative and regulatory certainty for business, and continued cross-party collaboration on climate action. A key takeaway from the Kingswood MP’s speech was the view that the 2050 target should be a floor, not a ceiling and that, ultimately, net zero will fail if it is seen as top-down and imposed by the centre, rather than as a place-based approach, with the delivery of community-led projects to ensure popular support and common ownership of net zero.
One of the key challenges, Skidmore asserted, was to break out of the spending review cycle which grips Westminster. Citing the example of Germany, he noted the coalition’s ten-year hydrogen strategy. Similarly, in the States, President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) secures tax credits on green technology until 2033. On the framing of climate action within the IRA, Skidmore stated that net zero had cut through with the broader population, and is, to date, the most compelling narrative framework on climate. Accountability frameworks, such as carbon budgets, have been successful in holding governments to account, with a lack of clarity and ambition now emerging as key hurdles. Crucial then, for Skidmore, is the need to establish long-term confidence for businesses and communities.
When asked about the recent report by the Climate Change Committee which criticised the Government’s ambitions, Skidmore countered that the Committee had increased confidence that targets would be met up to 2027, but less confidence post then. Skidmore likewise confirmed that the Conservative consensus on climate could break down if the party loses the next election, though this would depend on the scale of the loss and who wins the subsequent leadership election. In conclusion, Skidmore stated that it was crucial for the Energy Bill to receive quick passage through Parliament.
Delivering net zero – Does government have a robust plan for delivering net zero?
The debate also assessed the current state of climate policy in the UK, with considerations of the progress made as well as the present limitations of government strategy.
There was consensus amongst the assembled panel that whilst government was generally doing the right thing, tough choices were being postponed and a sense of urgency was lacking.
On the economy side, panellists highlighted supply chain limitations and the need for central government to set out a plan for local and national delivery of net zero targets; this would, panellists noted, require further devolution, with statutory roles for Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and Metro Mayors required to inform wider policymaking. Citizen engagement and communication from government to guide behavioural and modal shifts at the individual level would also aid the decentralisation of climate action.
Likewise, when considering technology, panellists emphasised that building decarbonisation, clean hydrogen generation, and heat pump deployment was currently way behind schedule. Fixing this, and broader technological shortcomings, would require greater ambition and clarity on the skills and jobs needed for the net zero economy.
Keynote by Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP
Ed Miliband MP opened his speech by outlining the challenges and opportunities of net zero, highlighting the dramatic fall in the cost of renewable energy over the past decade and the benefits that decoupling from international fossil fuel markets would bring to alleviating the cost of living. Miliband continued that net zero was the opportunity of the twenty-first century and that there was a crucial role for government in shaping industrial policy and influencing catalytic public investment – catalytic as it leads to greatly increased private investment.
Miliband confirmed that energy and climate would be at the centre of the next Labour manifesto with an overarching mission to achieve 100% clean electricity generation by 2030. Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan will include pledges to create GB Energy, a national wealth fund to co-invest with the private sector, the insultation of 19 million homes over a decade, a British jobs bonus for companies that manufacture in industrial areas and coastal communities, and the restoration of climate leadership, with further proposals to be developed on transport, nature, and buildings.
Miliband next outlined the four key barriers to the 2030 clean electricity target (currently a 2035 target), namely planning, the National Grid, supply chains, and skills. He continued that a Labour government would take inspiration from models like the vaccine taskforce, setting a clear national priority on clean electricity, backed by public and private sector collaboration and pushed forward by political leadership. On planning, Miliband reiterated Labour’s pledge to reduce the process of planning consent from years to months and confirmed that every regulator would have a net zero duty, including the Planning Inspectorate. Likewise, it would be the case that local communities would receive direct, substantive benefits from clean energy infrastructure. GB Energy would lead this approach and support the deployment of local clean energy infrastructure, which Labour calculates could build the equivalent of 2.5 nuclear power stations in five years. More policies on the National Grid, supply chains, and skills would, Miliband pledged, be unveiled before the next election.
On the role of GB Energy Miliband noted that Britain had failed to reap the industrial benefits of offshore wind, with 45% of offshore wind energy owned and operated by state-owned foreign companies. This would have to change, with GB Energy’s role also to de-risk innovative, potentially sector-leading technology, such as floating offshore wind, and to secure buy-in from communities, operating independently of government.
On planning, Miliband confirmed that there would be trade-offs, identifying the issue around repetitive environmental assessments stalling nature positive developments. Likewise, improvements in the identification process, namely, to identify specific land for specific forms of technology, is required. Miliband also noted that carbon literacy was useful and that there should be a role for Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to act as trusted intermediaries for consumers.
Finally, when questioned on the specific and unique capabilities of the UK in taking climate action, Miliband highlighted the natural geography of the British Isles and argued that the European Union had been too pessimistic and reactionary when responding to the IRA. Britain would need a thriving green steel industry and automotive industry, Miliband confirmed, but investment was needed to break out of the doom loop of low growth – an opportunity presented by the global race on net zero.
Supporting green industries – How should the UK respond as other countries shift towards green industries?
The second panel assessed the climate policy of international actors, including the US and EU, and considered how the UK could utilise regulation and tax incentives to gain an advantage in the race to net zero. Referencing Biden’s IRA (analysis of which can be found here), the panel was divided: some felt that the scale of US subsidies risked the European market missing out and called for an adequate response; others countered that the US was not a threat and the IRA presented an opportunity, with historic US climate action limited and tenuous. Some argued that the EU was less inclined to use incentives to attract investment and risked being squeezed out between American and Chinese competition; it would therefore be important to give individual EU member states a more prominent role in climate action, whilst encouraging larger states like Germany and France to take the lead on subsidies. Finally, there was agreement on the need for a skills package which places STEM at the heart of the net zero agenda – one speaker argued that a scientific approach was needed, particularly to utilise comparative analysis of what works globally – to help inaugurate partnerships with other nations as a means of breaking out of centralised governance.
The Institute for Government’s Net Zero conference provided a forum for policymakers, industry, and business, to assess the state of net zero in 2023 and to consider how the next government can ensure the UK fulfils its 2030 targets on decarbonisation. A common theme across both keynote addresses and panels was the need for holistic government action to ensure that policy proposals and commitments translate into tangible outcomes.
Speakers argued that policy direction on supply chain resilience, local and regional devolution, skills and training, and regulative and legislative certainty would be fundamental to the UK’s efforts to become a leading power in the race to net zero. Crucially, it was also argued that the government must formulate an overarching green strategy which recognises and responds to the global competition unfolding between the triumvirate of superpowers, the US, EU, and China.
Ultimately, with the world recording record-breaking temperatures and questions around the UK’s climate leadership growing, the conference was unanimous in its position that the UK must act now or risk losing its place at the forefront of the net zero revolution.