While 130 countries have now set targets to get to net zero, none has a realistic implementation plan.
Low carbon transitions are multi-dimensional, arising from technical, economic, social, cultural and – crucially – political factors.
Setting targets is great, but implementation-oriented policymaking must be a key part of the drive to decarbonise.
With that in mind, let’s look at three of the most polluting sectors in the UK economy and how efforts to reduce emissions have advanced – or not.
Electricity is a success story for the UK, which has cut greenhouse gas emissions by 72 per cent since 1990.
Three major technologies have driven this change: the shift from coal to gas, the growth of renewables (wind, solar, and bio-power), and electricity demand reduction, resulting from energy efficiency improvements in appliances and a shift from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs.
The key here is that these technologies were supported by increasing state intervention, such as policies to phase out coal and traditional light bulbs, financial support for renewables deployment, and the Carbon Floor Prices, which taxes coal.
So, we have seen a strong shift from a hands-off to an interventionist approach through a raft of targets, financial subsidies and regulations; policymakers have really shaped markets. A political dimension of these policies is that they systematically favoured big incumbent players rather than smaller new entrants.
Here, the situation is more complicated.
Car use is deeply embedded in our lifestyles and infrastructure, and car use continues to grow. Although auto-mobility increased by 10 per cent between 2007 and 2019, emissions from passenger cars have fallen by 12 per cent in that period.
Drivers of emission reductions were more fuel-efficient vehicles, the doubling in rail travel (and a small modal shift from cars to rail), increasing use of biofuels, and the rise of electric vehicles (EVs); which in 2020 accounted for more than 20 per cent of all new car sales.
Again, policy has been key in driving this, focusing particularly on EV subsidies for buyers, investment in charging infrastructure and support for EV plants, alongside legislation to end of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
But on the whole, the government has taken a relatively ‘hands-off’ approach, leaving it to the market to decide.
For instance, while there is a very strong policy on EVs and biofuels, there has been less intervention in areas such as rail, car-sharing and teleworking.
Heat and buildings
Heating our homes is hugely dependent on gas boilers. Emissions have gradually decreased since the 1990s due to incremental measures such as double glazing, loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, and energy-efficient boilers. In recent years, however, they have begun to creep up again, due to weakening policies.
Back in 2006 there was a zero carbon homes policy, but it was very ambitious in terms of its timeframe. Volume housebuilders lobbied against it and by 2015 it was scrapped.
Then we had the 2013 Green Deal flagship policy which was an absolute disaster and led to a drop in retrofits. No substantive policy has replaced it in the building sector.
What is particularly important is that there are no dedicated agencies driving change in the heat and buildings domain and the coherence and strength of policies has decreased since the mid-2010s.
One of the reasons for our success in reducing electricity emissions has been that many radical innovations have been implemented, including solar, wind and biopower.
Mobility has seen lots of innovation too, but only a few new technologies have been widely adopted and the number of more radical innovations remains very small. While the pandemic saw huge temporary drops in emissions as people stayed home, car traffic rebounded to pre-pandemic levels once restrictions were lifted. Public transport use has only rebounded to 50-60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, which may be a more enduring impact of Covid, which is concerning.
In the heat sector there are a lot of radical innovations, but only a few have been used at scale. There are many opportunities, but lack of policy is one of main reasons why change has not been very transformative so far.
All this serves to prove the importance of robust policymaking in driving the UK’s net zero ambitions.
Note: This blog builds on findings in this forthcoming book:
Geels, F.W. and Turnheim, B., 2021, The Great Reconfiguration: A Comparative Socio-Technical Analysis of Low-Carbon Transitions in UK Electricity, Heat, and Mobility Systems, Cambridge University Press.