Andrew Wood, Senior Engagement and Impact Officer with Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission, gives some personal reflections on Mission Zero, the Independent Review of Net Zero by Chris Skidmore MP
In October, Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission submitted a response to the government’s Net Zero Strategy Review, chaired by former Energy Minister, Chris Skidmore. We set out our position that the major obstacles to climate action are a lack of consistent regulations, policies and resources, all of which need to be in place to enable the economy to thrive.
The review was launched at a turbulent time for the government, and there were widespread fears that it marked a return to the ‘economy versus environment’ paradigm that dogged politics and decision-making in the past. Happily, the resulting report, Mission Zero – Independent Review of Net Zero, has not made that mistake – and it may put new wind in the sails of a future economy that is fit for purpose for the climate and nature emergencies we face. Influential voices endorsing the report include Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the ground-breaking 2006 Stern Review setting out the economic case for climate action.
The thrust of the Skidmore report, published in early January 2023, is encapsulated in one of its sub-headings: “Net zero is the growth opportunity of the 21st century”. This might be considered stating the obvious: after all, achieving net zero in the first half of the century is a binding national commitment, so all new growth that enjoys state support through policy, regulation and investment must surely be focused on the climate mission. But not everyone backs this approach – recall those manoeuvres to portray advocates of net zero as part of an imaginary ‘Anti-Growth Coalition’? - making Chris Skidmore’s articulation of the strength, broad base and urgency of the call for action hugely welcome.
The report is also clear about the need to act swiftly, arguing that this gives competitive advantage for investment and creates confidence for businesses to grow, recruit workers and address skills shortages, a view echoed by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Crucially, Skidmore’s report also recognises that “delay is a significant risk…the benefits of decarbonisation are larger if it is done sooner”.
The report recommends ten ‘priority missions’, all of which are bold and not without risk - but that is what missions should be. Given that the climate and nature emergencies demand responses on multiple fronts, the focus on net zero may seem too narrow, potentially neglecting the nature recovery that ultimately underpins our survival as a species. There is some reassurance in the mission to “embed nature and habitat restoration…maximising co-benefits for climate and nature wherever possible”, although this does imply that carbon reduction is the mission and nature the co-beneficiary. Since the UK is still falling well short against its biodiversity targets, there is a need for a more sure-footed integration of carbon and ecological outcomes across government policy than the report seems to offer.
Two of the priority missions are particularly relevant to the emerging planning system reforms: “pave the way for onshore wind deployment” and “unblocking the planning system”. Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission are currently preparing a response to the government’s consultation on revising the National Planning Policy Framework. The proposed changes relating to making it easier for communities to initiate and support applications for wind turbines appear rather timid, and unlikely to result in significantly more schemes coming forward. We are working through our Regional Policy Forum to formulate a suggested improvement to this policy.
We do need to continue challenging the government’s tendency to see planning as a barrier to action, and deregulation as the solution. There is a need for strong national policies that require developers to act and empower local authorities to pursue ambitious plans, a point we made in our own evidence to the review. This is especially true for developments such as onshore wind, which can be controversial and therefore need robust, transparent planning policies that communities will trust. It is heartening that the report calls for a ‘net zero test’ to be introduced into the planning system.
Differences of opinion
The missions calling for commitment to carbon capture and storage, hydrogen networks and a new fleet of nuclear energy plants are also likely to attract differences of opinion. Indeed, they arouse a range of opinions amongst our Commission’s own network. Whatever your view, it is essential that their whole life-cycle impacts on climate and nature are taken properly into account. Our region, especially around the Humber, has a legacy of carbon-intensive industries, and transforming these for a zero-carbon future is a great economic opportunity. But this is not without its risks, including a dependence on technologies not yet proven at scale, and a shortage of suitably skilled labour.
The report’s ’25 by 2025’ recommendations go into further detail concerning a substantial basket of policies and actions that put the ball firmly in the government’s court. These range from new legislation on housing standards and regulations for emerging net zero technologies to a land-use framework and reforming skills programmes.
Looking for trail-blazers
An interesting recommendation is to “fully back at least one trail-blazer net zero city, local authority and community, with the aim for these places to reach net zero by 2030”. At least 150 local authorities in England, including some within Yorkshire and Humber, already have local net zero targets for 2030, and some also have innovative local climate action partnerships working to help achieve these (such as climate commissions!). A key concern, documented by the Place-based Climate Action Network’s overview of trends in local climate action, has been lack of consistent, cross-sector government backing to implement them. Therefore, whilst supporting one trailblazer is clearly welcome, this must be put in perspective by how rapidly so many authorities are wishing to progress and are needing support.
Chris Skidmore’s Mission Zero report is a thorough analysis of an ambitiously large consultation exercise, and the findings come through loud and clear. The thousands of responses to the call to evidence have produced an unmistakable message that serious climate action is essential for the economy, and the business community is firmly on-side. We in Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission can recognise some our own evidence in the report, such as the need for longer-term certainty for funding programmes, and strong, collective voices on these issues have clearly had an impact on the review.
The recommendations span government departments and industrial sectors and demand joined up thinking. They include legislative measures requiring rapid progress through Parliament. Perhaps most of all, they amount to a programme that – to quote our own Climate Action Plan – treats the emergency as an emergency.
In short, the report demands that government take an interventionist approach to making the net zero economy happen. This will require real buy-in and action from HM Treasury that is swift to arrive and stays for the long haul.
Andrew Wood, 1 February 2023