The long walk to net zero picks up pace as Government unveils £26bn green strategy

·7 min read
A new £620 million fund will continue to provide grants for electric vehicles as well as new on-street charging stations to help those without their own driveways - Jens Schlueter/AFP
A new £620 million fund will continue to provide grants for electric vehicles as well as new on-street charging stations to help those without their own driveways - Jens Schlueter/AFP

Half of journeys in towns and cities must be walked or cycled by 2030, the Government has said, as it unveiled a £26 billion programme to cut the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Electric cars will not “solve all our problems”, the Government said in the first comprehensive document revealing how it plans to meet targets to reduce net carbon emissions to 78 per cent by 2035.

On Tuesday, the Government admitted more investment and regulation would be necessary to meet the target, but said its Net Zero strategy put the UK on the path to decarbonisation.

A £2 billion “active travel” fund will invest in bike lanes and low-traffic neighbourhoods, with walking and cycling becoming the “natural first choice”, it says.

A new £620 million fund will continue to provide grants for electric vehicles as well as new on-street charging stations to help those without their own driveways.

It also sets out plans to require electric car manufacturers to make a certain proportion of their vehicle sales electric from 2024. The planned “zero emission vehicles (ZEV) mandate” is designed to kickstart the electric car market.

New petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030, under previously announced plans, with hybrids to follow suit in 2035, by which time all new cars must be “zero-emission at the tailpipe”.

Another target for all new vehicles - including buses, HGVs and motorbikes - to be zero-emission by 2040 has also been set.

Homes

The Government wants to end the sale of new gas boilers from 2035, but homes off the gas grid will be expected to wean themselves off fossil fuel use nearly a decade earlier.

More than one million, mostly rural, homes that use oil or coal will have to switch to low-carbon alternatives such as heat pumps when they replace their old equipment from 2026, under new proposals.

New homes built from 2025 will not be connected to the gas grid and will instead be expected to have heat pumps installed as standard.

Downing Street is planning to install the technology in coming years, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said.

Heat pumps are designed to work best at consistent lower temperatures, and the Government wants all homes to reach an energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of C by 2035 to help keep them warm.

EPC ratings could therefore be linked to mortgages, impacting the two-thirds of homes across the country which are currently rated D or below.

Mortgage lenders will be expected to disclose the average EPC rating across their portfolio, with voluntary and potentially mandatory targets to achieve average rating of C by 2030.

This could mean more expensive mortgages for homes that perform badly, to encourage the take-up of measures such as wall or roof insulation.

A Baxi hydrogen boiler inside a home on a research and development site near Carlisle - Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg
A Baxi hydrogen boiler inside a home on a research and development site near Carlisle - Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg

However, the Government did not provide any extra measures to help support energy efficiency measures for homeowners, after the failure of its Green Homes Grant last year.

A more cautious approach to hydrogen for home heating emerged in the strategy, though all new boilers could be required to be “hydrogen-ready” from 2026. But the Government said that from 2035, hydrogen-ready boilers should only be installed in areas that will have access to supply.

A hydrogen village trial will inform a decision on the use of the gas for home heating by 2026.

In the area selected for the trial, an engineer will require access to homes to switch them over, with residents “unlikely to have control over when this happens”.

The strategy emphasises the role that heat pumps will play in decarbonising homes, and says it plans to increase the costs of gas through carbon pricing and switching environmental levies from electricity bills to encourage take up.

Nature

Tree-planting will treble by May 2024 as the Government seeks to create new woodlands to capture more carbon from the atmosphere.

Overall, the UK has a target of increasing planting rates to 30,000 hectares each year by the end of this Parliament. Last year around 2,200 hectares of trees were planted in England, according to Forestry Commission figures.

The Government also wants to restore 280,000 hectares of peatland in England by 2050, around 40 per cent of the whole, and will commit an extra £124 million for its nature goals.

Peat is one of the country’s biggest carbon stores, but it has been drained and damaged for horticulture and farming, meaning it actually releases more carbon than it removes from the atmosphere, producing around four per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

There are also plans, and £295 million in funding, to introduce free separate food waste collections for every household by 2025, in a delay to the original plan to do this by 2023.

The aim is for almost no biodegradable waste to go to landfill by 2028, in an attempt to cut methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, which has a significantly higher warming effect than carbon dioxide in the short term.

Energy

The Net Zero strategy confirms government plans to decarbonise electricity generation by 2035 - 15 years earlier than first envisaged - “subject to security of supply”.

Its planned power system of 2035 will include wind, solar and nuclear power.

Gas-fired power stations will still be used, but coupled with carbon capture systems to scrub out the emissions. Hydrogen will help smooth out periods of intermittent wind and solar.

The strategy is hugely ambitious, with fossil fuels generating 43.1 per cent of UK electricity in 2019 - mostly gas, and a small amount of coal (2.1 per cent).

Electricity demand is also set to rise given the growth of electric cars and heat pumps.

Meeting the target will likely require a major overhaul of planning processes and grid connection timeframes.

The Government has also ramped up its targets for carbon capture. It now wants there to be four projects capturing 20-30m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2030, compared to previous plans of 10m tonnes by 2030. The technology is not yet in place at scale in the UK, although on Tuesday, the Government picked two projects to be fast-tracked.

The Government pledged an additional £120m for new nuclear development, including small modular reactors, which could be a cheaper and easier way of building capacity. It also said it would bring forward “a large-scale nuclear plant” by 2024, likely to be Sizewell C, proposed by EDF Energy for Suffolk.

Tech

The document emphasises the need for engineered carbon removal technologies, such as a proposed plant in Scotland, which promises to suck up one million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) from the air every year.

Net Zero “will not be feasible” without technology to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the Government says, with targets for removing 5MtCO2 a year by 2030, equivalent to more than one per cent of the UK’s current annual emissions.

The shift in emphasis comes amid growing concern that nature-based removals, such as tree planting, will not be sufficient given the amount of land available and the time it takes for trees to grow.

There is also growing scepticism around the role of so-called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), when wood pellets or crops are burned for energy, with the CO2 emissions captured. Such technology is classed as carbon negative.

The Government notes that producing crops or wood for BECCS “could pose risks to biodiversity” as well as soil, water and air quality.

Greenwashing

Major UK businesses could be required to start disclosing their environmental impact, to help investors make informed decisions and avoid potential greenwashing.

Companies will be required to “justify clearly” any claims they make about sustainability, and a new rulebook will set out what economic activities can actually be counted as green.

The Treasury wants the pensions and investment sector to start aligning their funds with Net Zero.

The new rules will apply to UK-listed and UK-registered companies and are expected to come into force by 2025, although it is unclear what penalties businesses could face if they fail to comply.

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