With no time to waste in building the green economy of the future, the UK needs an independent body to lead on policy delivery and strategic planning, argues Policy Connect’s Verity Winn

2022 is a pivotal year on the road to net zero. Rising energy prices, power outages from Storm Arwen, publication of key strategies and BEIS consultations on low carbon heating have all set the scene for a re-evaluation of the UK’s energy system. There’s no time to waste if the UK is to meet its legally binding target of net zero by 2050, meaning this year is the time for government to act to deliver on zero-carbon, robust, equitable energy systems.

In our recent report, we explored the case for an independent net zero delivery authority to drive the transition, setting out the actions government and stakeholders need to take to move away from disjointed net zero policies, to achieve a joined-up approach with buy-in across government departments. Three key points of action stand out in order to deliver: the need for a net zero delivery authority, a net zero spending test, and local delivery mechanisms.

A net zero delivery authority would provide delivery leadership across the UK to make net zero happen. It would ensure strategies are enacted and help to facilitate cross-departmental action on skills plans, standards, long-term strategic energy planning and public engagement. It would be the lynchpin of a whole-systems approach: connecting central to local, people to policymakers and the UK to its zero-carbon future. It would be set up in statute to give it clout, as was the case for similar delivery bodies such as the Olympic Delivery Authority.

A net zero test should be applied across all government departments, ensuring policy decisions are consistent with reaching net zero. This would anchor the Treasury in net zero planning and ensure strategies can be implemented in a timely manner. Publishing whole-of-government metrics on progress would require coordination across departments and increase accountability as 2050 approaches.

Local delivery of net zero is a crucial piece of the puzzle that has not yet been put into place. Local government and partners have the reach into communities to get net zero done on individual streets and the ability to speak with people about the transition. But at present, local government has neither the mandate nor resources to begin this work – now is the time for Westminster to supply both.

With these three elements as the foundation, government can take several other actions this year to ensure the UK makes it to net zero on time and in a way that benefits individuals.

1. Create net zero skills plans based on government targets

Collaboration between government, the new net zero delivery authority and local partners would create skills plans that make government targets a reality. Considering the long lead-in times required for businesses to plan and for people to train and qualify, these plans must be agreed as soon as possible. Stronger regulation of new and improved skills and standards will also be necessary, working in tandem with incentives to expand and equip the workforce needed to deliver net zero.

2. Establish a network of independent consumer information hubs

People need to understand net zero technology to install it in their homes, but according to BEIS, only a third of people know either a fair amount or a lot about the need to change the way homes are heated to reach net zero. Independent hubs would provide information about net zero, consumer protections and tailored advice, using trusted partners to communicate messages about net zero. Home Energy Scotland already provides a similar service, managed by the Energy Saving Trust.

3. Incentivise homeowners to adopt low-carbon heating, energy and transport

Encouraging early uptake of low-carbon technology at key points such as home renovation or sale would boost the UK towards net zero. The government’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme is a welcome step, but won’t help households which are unable to pay the remaining costs of installing a heat pump. Incentives should be targeted to make sure those least able to pay are not shut out of the net zero transition and fuel poverty is properly addressed.

4. Cease incentives which lock in reliance upon fossil fuels

Incentives and signals from government are needed to make green energy cheaper than fossil fuels.  Making the most of momentum from the COP26 presidency, government should prioritise making the unit price of zero-carbon forms of energy more affordable and attractive, especially in light of recent price volatilities in energy markets.

5. Back a pilot study to establish how local authorities can be given the resources and mandate for net zero.

Local government and partners should be involved in the transition from the get-go. To get their skills and capacity net zero-ready, we need a large-scale pilot before 2025 in coordination with the net zero delivery authority. This would allow evidence-based strategies to be rolled out across the country to set up local delivery of net zero.

Verity Winn is project coordinator for sustainability at cross party think tank Policy Connect.

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