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UK Net Zero – A Moment Of Pragmatism Or Shame?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has formally announced a shift in many of the timelines previously set for achieving net zero by 2050. Many claim this is a weakening of some of the government’s key green commitments and a major policy shift. It is now committed to reaching UK net zero carbon emissions by 2050 but in a “more proportionate way”.

The aim of UK net zero is to take out of the atmosphere as many greenhouse gas emissions – such as carbon dioxide – as it puts in. Mr Sunak intent is for the UK to continue as a world leader on net zero, but he is arguing that Britain has over-delivered on confronting climate change and that other countries need to do more to pull their weight. This realism does not, however, mean losing ambition or abandoning commitments.

Changes to core policy or commitments on UK net zero include:

  • Pushing the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035.
  • Target plans to phase out the installation of gas boilers by 2035 see targets weakened to 80% phase-out by that year.
  • No new energy efficiency regulations on homes for homeowners and landlords who fail to upgrade their properties to a certain level of energy efficiency will no longer be fined as planned.
  • The 2026 ban on off-grid oil boilers will be delayed to 2035, with only an 80% phase-out target at that date.
  • No new taxes to discourage flying, no government policies to change people’s diets and no measures to encourage carpooling.
  • Cease of plans for ‘seven bin’ domestic recycling strategy.

In a statement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said, “For too many years politicians in governments of all stripes have not been honest about costs and trade-offs. Instead, they have taken the easy way out, saying we can have it all. We are committed to Net Zero by 2050 and the agreements we have made internationally – but doing so in a better, more proportionate way. Our politics must again put the long-term interests of our country before the short-term political needs of the moment.”  

Lord Zac Goldsmith, Conservative peer and former minister responded that this was, “The moment the UK turned its back on the world and on future generations. A moment of shame.”

Many commentators have already drawn the conclusion that Sunak’s statement is a pointed barb at former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s policies which were formalised at COP 26. Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay, who chairs the net zero scrutiny group, said he was “Pleased to see some pragmatism,” from Mr Sunak, and that moving back dates for net zero targets “will take pie in the sky ‘greenwash’ measures out of clearly unachievable deadlines”.

The government’s commitment to UK net zero has consistently come under fire, and we have commented on the general lack of support or advice given to the commercial and public sectors, along with too great an emphasis on specific and often limited technology in terms of commercial application. This became most obvious in terms of the drive for heat pumps which was focussed on domestic rather than commercial deliverables, despite the high proportion of commercial buildings with high daily energy demands. This has driven our call to accept the hybrid approach to commercial water heating, to not only deliver carbon reduction but make efforts to control spiralling costs reported by many who have followed government recommendations on a singular technology approach.

The recently reported changes to EPC ratings on commercial properties will not be affected, mandating change across commercial rental space. But we wait to see if any of the other policy amendments will actively affect the commercial sector. This does not seem the case, and the expectations placed on organisations in the commercial space remain the same. Net zero strategies should continue and at Adveco we continue to support a wide range of technology-based approaches for addressing the reduction of emissions from water heating and better managing associated costs whether on gas or transitioning fully to electric.

For the past year, the lack of clarity on hydrogen has been a particular sticking point, especially given the phase-out dates for new gas-fired boiler installation. Any weakening in the stance on domestic gas-fired appliances can only help the potential transition to blended hydrogen, but we continue to advocate the application of hydrogen as part of the mix of options for commercial hot water in the mid- to long-term. This is timely as the government has just opened its latest consultation phase looking at the value of blending hydrogen into the existing UK gas grid as a means to reduce overall emissions from the network has been launched by the government.

While there may be some potential benefits for reducing emissions from natural gas boilers, this was not considered the “primary strategic role” for hydrogen blending into the grid, that would be its application for industrial and commercial sites, the latter if there were high demands for hot water.

Blending hydrogen into our gas supply – through existing gas infrastructure – would open the doors to an expansion of its use as a fuel, one which could help cut emissions and stabilise bills for businesses as part of the drive toward UK net zero. Hydrogen currently makes up around 0.1% of the gas used in people’s homes and businesses – but proposals could see the volume of hydrogen in the network increase gradually over time, up to a maximum of 20%.

The consultation marks the next step in the government’s plans to reach 10GW of hydrogen production capacity by 2030, cutting carbon emissions and strengthening energy security, while helping to stabilise operational costs. Feedback is being sought until 27 October, after which we hope to see a decision taken on the issue of whether to begin blending hydrogen into the UK’s gas distribution networks.