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4 things the next UK government can do to achieve net zero

04 April 2024

Experts participated in a lively debate about what the infrastructure priorities should be for the next UK Parliament.

4 things the next UK government can do to achieve net zero
Increasing the uptake of electric vehicles can improve air quality and reduce noise pollution. Image credit: Shutterstock

By January 2025 - at the very latest - the UK will head to the polls to elect a new national government. Whoever leads the next Parliament faces a difficult task.

The UK is committed to reaching net zero by 2050, with an interim target to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels.

Two-thirds of the carbon emissions that cause global warming come from economic infrastructure: the services such as transport, energy, and heating that we rely on to survive and thrive.

Time is running out. If the UK’s targets are to become reality, the new Parliament will need to make big decisions about infrastructure on day one.

What are the options?

The ICE explored this question in its latest briefing paper, Net zero infrastructure: what should the ‘day 1’ priorities be for a new UK Parliament?.

On 21 March, the ICE gathered a group of experts to debate on the most important policy areas for achieving net zero in the UK.

The debate responded to the concepts explored in the paper, considering their economic viability, carbon impact, and wider public benefit.

The panel included:

  • Tim Chapman (panel chair), partner and director, Boston Consulting Group
  • Prof Denise Bower OBE, director for external engagement, Mott MacDonald
  • Roz Bullied, research director, Green Alliance
  • Dr James Richardson, director of analysis, Climate Change Committee
  • Juliette Sanders, director of strategic communications, Energy UK

Watch the event recording

During the debate, the following four options emerged.

1. Engage the public

The panel agreed that public engagement, one of the seven priorities outlined in the paper, is essential for achieving net zero.

New projects are often seen as an imposition and an expense. Public buy-in requires clearer communication of benefits. For example:

  • Reducing the carbon output of public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, can bring down operating costs.
  • Increasing the uptake of public transport and electric vehicles (EVs) can improve air quality, ease congestion, and reduce noise pollution.

Net zero reforms must also be equitable and inclusive.

For example, half-hour energy pricing may disadvantage working families, who often need to cook dinner when energy prices would be at their highest.

Dr James Richardson called for a rebalancing of electricity and gas prices to encourage behaviour change.

A heat pump is three times more efficient than a gas boiler, but the current prices don’t motivate people to make the switch.

Rebalancing prices would also encourage organisations to electrify some of their industrial processes.

Juliette Sanders echoed the call for fairer pricing, noting that VAT is four times higher for those who charge their EV on the street than for those who do so from their driveway.

2. Look beyond the energy sector to achieve net zero

The UK has successfully halved emissions relative to 1990, the majority of which has been from reducing the role of coal in the power sector.

To meet emissions targets, the focus must be on pace, not perfection.

The UK needs to look more broadly at other sectors, including transport, agriculture, and manufacturing.

The technologies needed to achieve net zero are clearer now than 10 years ago: electric vehicles, heat pumps, renewable electricity, and so on.

A few, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen, remain less certain – something the market has yet to resolve.

Low-carbon technologies are beginning to become cheaper than the high-carbon technologies that they replace.

Richardson put this down to, in part, the volatility of fossil fuel prices. Opting for green technologies protects against these pricing vulnerabilities and is also cheaper and more effective.

3. Think of transport solutions, and with a local focus

Transport was a major focus of the debate.

Tim Chapman highlighted the section of the briefing paper that calls for a UK tram agency, which would create tram infrastructure in 10 UK cities.

This form of public transport can be set up quickly enough to contribute to net zero commitments, as well as deliver better transport options for the public.

The panel also discussed the often-overlooked value of local authorities as a source of local knowledge and public trust, particularly regarding heating homes and transport solutions.

Realising the benefit, however, would need additional funding support.

4. Develop skills for a green transition

The panel agreed that an education, training, and skills strategy is necessary to ensure that the UK has the hundreds of thousands of workers needed to implement the green transition. This includes reskilling current workers.

Green jobs will attract more workers if the public understands that there will be stable, high demand for this work in the future.

Such a strategy should also address equity, diversity, and inclusion issues in the green workforce.

This includes continuing physical barriers for women, such as ill-fitting PPE or a lack of toilet facilities onsite.

The panel also called for engineers, particularly those working at academic institutions, to be more outspoken in the media on addressing climate change.

As climate change is all about physics and chemistry, engineers are well placed to speak with authority on the matter.

If you want to learn more about the ICE recommendations for the next UK government, you can read the ICE Next Steps briefing paper.

Using the ICE Infrastructure Blog as the platform for debate, we’re keen to hear your thoughts on the infrastructure priorities for the next UK government and on achieving net zero emissions.

If you’re interested in writing for the Infrastructure Blog, please email [email protected].

  • Hannah Judd, policy manager at ICE