To achieve net zero decarbonisation UK government will need to improve the way it works

  • Government departments should set a clear, specific and long-term framework to encourage, nudge and force change.

  • Better coordination, planning and flexibility in policymaking is essential.

  • Persuading consumers to change their behaviour needs greater focus.

Most businesses or households do not fully appreciate the scale of the challenge to deliver net-zero emissions by 2050.  It’s easy to understand why. One reason is that when a target or deadline seems a long way off, it can be hard to identify the obstacles that may delay progress and success. If the impetus to take action doesn’t feel urgent enough, public policy tends to change incrementally and slowly.

One challenge it´s critical to get right is that national government leads the way and sets a clear, specific and long-term framework to encourage, nudge and force change. A framework is vital to create a thriving market for the best technological solutions, convince investors to commit their capital, inspire businesses and public authorities to reform how they work, and convince consumers to change their way of life.

Successive UK governments have made great strides to cut emissions since the Climate Change Act and more recently by legislating for a legally binding net-zero target. The target not only means the UK will need to do more to reduce emissions but to achieve this target at the least cost. Government departments must get better at strategic planning as quickly as possible to deliver greater efficiencies and faster change across the public and private sectors. 

Departmental policies and political leadership are crucial to winning the public’s support for future changes to consumer lifestyles. Deeper and more fundamental change will be needed to achieve net-zero emissions. For example, this could mean carbon taxes on meat and dairy products or how gas is used for heating and cooking. It´s unlikely most of the public has really begun to digest how radical changes to their everyday life will need to be.

Is the government ready for this huge challenge? 

A recent report by the independent body in the UK that audits government spending (the National Audit Office) helpfully identifies some of the major challenges ministers face. One conclusion is that government departments with responsibility for economic sectors producing the majority of emissions need better coordination with each other to ensure the coherent integration of net-zero reduction plans. The importance of coordination is vital as, this year, we will see multiple economic and sector strategies published by the government to reduce emissions. These include an industrial decarbonisation strategy, developing a UK hydrogen sector, the final report of the Treasury´s net-zero review, a transport decarbonisation plan and a net-zero strategy

For public affairs teams, the NAO´s insights are worth considering. These signal future challenges for some businesses that try to innovate but may end up being frustrated with the pace of change if government planning is disorganised or inefficient. There is a risk that government becomes an obstacle rather than a catalyst for transformation. Companies and organisations need to identify what evidence or insights could help decision-makers unlock intelligent and evidenced solutions to very complex problems. 

Four of the most important points from the report are:

Intelligent planning: create Single Departmental Plans that fully incorporate net-zero objectives. These plans are important for setting out the objectives, planning and performance framework for departments.

Step up support for local government: it has an essential role in cutting emissions across the public sector, especially in transport and housing. Local action will be critical to the success of other emissions reduction strategies published later in 2021.

Flexible policy: one of the strategies expected before COP26 is the government´s net-zero strategy. The report concludes that it is necessary to create a strategy with clear milestones but sufficient flexibility to anticipate as yet unknown technological change and uncertainty. This is vital to attract and keep international investment in the UK. In addition, the government needs to better understand the interdependencies and the impact that changes in one sector will have on other sectors and plan for the deep structural changes that will happen as a consequence of delivering net-zero.

Public engagement: more will need to be done on ensuring the public understands and supports the need for change. However, this can´t be a one-size-fits-all engagement that does not take into account the diversity of consumers. Specifically, future engagement must recognise the differences between ethnic minorities, geography, and income.  The task of winning public support may be more challenging than the government assumes. The NAO notes that, in general, governments tend to overestimate the level of support consumers have for policy changes that will require behaviour change.

Please get in touch for an exploratory conversation if you would like to discuss how to influence emerging policy on net zero and your public affairs strategy.

Public Affairs Experts – March 2nd, 2021

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