Boris Johnson’s commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the UK by 2050 is a “colossal challenge” that can only be achieved with a radical reassessment of priorities, according to Whitehall’s spending watchdog.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has found that the UK is projected to fail to meet the government’s targets for the years 2023 to 2027 and 2028 to 2032, which were set to establish a trajectory for reducing emissions by 80% over the next 30 years.
If the government is to get to net zero by 2050, changes will be expected to the way electricity is generated, how people travel, how land is used and how buildings are heated.
It comes hours before the prime minister is expected to commit to setting another ambitious target of reducing emissions by as much as 69% within the decade. The government is working to an existing target of cutting emissions by 57% compared with 1990 levels by 2030.
Last month the government unveiled a 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution” that included a ban on the sale of diesel and petrol cars from 2030.
Auditors examined the government’s legislation, proposed by Theresa May in 2019 and endorsed by Johnson, to cut greenhouse gases as much as possible and offset remaining pollution by planting trees or using technology to capture carbon over the next 30 years.
The target is significantly more challenging than the previous target to cut emissions by 80% by mid-century, which the UK is not on track to meet, the report says. The costs of failing to act would be far greater because of the need to adapt to substantial changes in climate, auditors said, such as building flood defences and dealing with the impacts on health of higher temperatures.
Ministers need to spearhead a “concerted national effort” to achieve net zero, says the report. This would probably involve widespread changes to people’s lives such as driving electric cars or eating less meat. The government will need to “engage actively and constructively with all those who will need to play a part – across the public sector, with industry and with citizens – to inject the necessary momentum”, the report says.
The auditors said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) and the Treasury were not collating the total costs and benefits of policies that would contribute to net zero, and they should gather information on how much the government was spending to achieve net zero.
The government has aimed to set an example for other countries to follow in the run-up to hosting the 26th United Nations’ Climate Change Conference of the Parties (Cop26). The conference is due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021, having been postponed from November 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Plans by Beis to set out a clear net zero strategy before Cop26 were a “critical step” for achieving the emissions cuts, to help identify people, policies and funding, auditors said.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “While emissions have reduced steadily in recent years, achieving net zero is an enormously challenging long-term project, which will require well-thought-out cross-government coordination to drive unprecedented changes across society and the economy.
“Government needs to step up to the challenge, ensuring it has a clear strategy to achieve its goal and accurately monitoring progress.”