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

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

  • Better coordination, planning and flexibility in policy making is essential

  • Winning the public’s support for lifestyle changes will need more focus

The strategic challenge of delivering net zero emissions by 2050 perhaps is not yet appreciated by many businesses or households. This is understandable, as when a target seems a long way away it can be hard to get a sense of the obstacles that may slow down success or delay implementation. 

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


Successive UK governments have made great strides since the Climate Change Act to cut emissions and more recently by legislating for a legally binding net zero target. The net zero target not only means the UK will need to go further on emissions reduction, but the pace of change in government and need for better strategic planning will impact how efficiently government and public authorities operate. 

Departmental policies and political leadership are going to be crucial to winning the public’s support for future changes to how consumers live. Deeper and more fundamental changes will be needed to achieve net zero emissions. For example, think carbon taxes on meat and dairy products or how gas is used. It´s unlikely most of the public have really begun to digest how far-reaching changes to lifestyles will need to be.

How ready is national government in the UK to deliver on this huge challenge? 

A recent report by the independent body in the UK that audits government spending (the National Audit Office) helpfully sets out some of these challenges. Major government departments that lead in sectors of the economy with the highest emissions will need to be more coordinated, focused and better integrate net zero reduction plans. 

This year will see multiple sector and economy wide strategies published by the government setting out a roadmap for decarbonisation. Everything from industrial decarbonisation, developing a UK hydrogen sector, the final report of the Treasury´s net zero review, a transport decarbonisation plan and a net zero strategy just to name a few areas. 

For public affairs teams the NAO´s insights are worth digesting, as they point out potential challenges and future frustrations for businesses trying to innovate, but needing government to be more efficient and better organised. They also offer opportunities for companies and organisations to think about what evidence or insights could help decision makers unlock intelligent and evidenced solutions to very complex problems. 

Several of the most important points are:

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

Step up support for local government – which has a big role to play in cutting emissions across the public sector (especially in transport and housing) and will be critical to the success of several sector strategies due to be announced by the government during 2021.

Flexible strategy - before the UK hosts COP26 the government is expected to publish its net zero strategy on how decarbonisation will be achieved. Creating a strategy with clear milestones but that is also sufficiently flexible to allow for unknown technological change and other uncertainties is necessary. This is also important to attract and keep investment in the UK. In addition, government will need to better understand the different interdependencies and impact that changes in one sector will have in other sectors. It’s vital for government to try and foresee the deep structural changes that will occur during the challenge of meeting net zero.

Public engagement – more will need to be done on ensuring the public understand and accept the need for change. However, this can´t be a one size fits all approach to engagement. Specifically, there is a need for any strategy to recognise the differences between ethnic minorities, geography and income. 

The task of winning public support may be greater than government assumes. The NAO point out that in general government normally overestimates how much consumers are bought-in to policy changes that require behaviour change.

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

Public Affairs Experts – March 2nd, 2021

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