Joseph Lewis & Ethny Childs
March 2022

What still needs to happen to reach Net Zero?

During the UN's COP26 Climate Change Summit, the IES published its landmark Manifesto for Transformative Change, setting out 54 recommendations for global climate action. The recommendations represent the voices of environmental scientists across disciplines, as well as the minimum level of action needed from COP26.

The Manifesto set out a clear rallying call for the coming months, reminding us that "scrutiny and accountability cannot end with COP26, and the attention to detail of the global community will need to increase as we see the agreements made between parties translated into action to mitigate and adapt to climate change."

In keeping with that goal, the IES has spent the months since COP26 undertaking an in-depth 'Gap Analysis', assessing the current commitments by the UK Government to reaching Net Zero, and whether or not they have the potential to align with the goal of transformative change set out in the Manifesto. Scrutiny and monitoring of plans remains crucial, and the evaluations in this analysis will be subject to change depending on whether or not the current plans set out by the Government become a reality.

Executive Summary

The UK Government has currently partially met 30 of the 54 recommendations in the IES Manifesto for Transformative Change. 11 recommendations are currently unmet, 9 are met, and it is unclear whether or not the remaining 4 have been met.

On certain issues, particularly the decarbonisation of the transport sector, the Government's plans are currently broadly on track to begin the process of transformative change, as long as action continues to progress at the current rate and ambitions are delivered upon. In other areas, the Government urgently requires further action, particularly on the vital issue of adaptation and resilience, where current plans insufficiently address the extent of risk and vulnerability posed by climate change.

This analysis underlines the message from COP26 that, while increased ambitions are welcome, there is still much more which needs to be done to achieve transformative change.

Table which reads: Overall: (Unclear: 4/54, Unmet: 11/54, Partially Met: 30/54, Met: 9/54, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met); Climate Leadership: (Unclear: 1/5, Unmet: 1/5, Partially Met: 3/5, Met: 0/5, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met); Finance: (Unclear: 0/5, Unmet: 1/5, Partially Met: 4/5, Met: 0/5, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met); Energy: (Unclear: 0/6, Unmet: 1/6, Partially Met: 5/6, Met: 0/6, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met); Empowerment: (Unclear: 0/6, Unmet: 1/6, Partially Met: 4/6, Met: 1/6, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met); Nature: (Unclear: 1/5, Unmet: 0/5, Partially Met: 3/5, Met: 1/5, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met); Circular Economy: (Unclear: 0/5, Unmet: 2/5, Partially Met: 2/5, Met: 1/5, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met); Adaptation & Resilience: (Unclear: 1/7, Unmet: 4/7, Partially Met: 1/7, Met: 1/7, Overall Evaluation: Unmet); Science & Innovation: (Unclear: 0/4, Unmet: 0/4, Partially Met: 3/4, Met: 1/4, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met); Transport: (Unclear: 0/7, Unmet: 0/7, Partially Met: 3/7, Met: 4/7, Overall Evaluation: Met); Cities & Regions: (Unclear: 1/4, Unmet: 1/4, Partially Met: 2/4, Met: 0/4, Overall Evaluation: Partially Met)

Climate Leadership

Our lives are governed by complex interactions between the natural, social, and economic systems we live in. The potential for systems to influence our lives and embed pressures on the environment reveals the same potential for those systems to become positive influences for humanity and the natural world. Governments must take leading roles in promoting transformative change across interlinking systems of consumption and production. Strong climate leadership will be crucial to deliver the multiple co-benefits necessary to meet our ambitions for climate and nature while operating within our limited time and resources.

Finance

An issue as complex as climate change spans social, national, and cultural contexts, though finance could be considered the common language connecting them all. The relationship between environmental science and economics must become more systematic, preventing ‘greenwashing’ and policy failures which have historically undermined the trust and confidence needed to mobilise capital for climate action.

Energy

An energy transition is needed to support the transformation of the energy sector and our reliance on fossil fuels to zero-carbon, renewable energy systems. The energy transition will involve a variety of technologies and methods, including traditional renewable energy sources, such as wind, hydroelectric and solar, as well as emerging technologies such as the use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS).

Empowerment

Environmental justice and equity are crucial elements of our response to the climate crisis, however all nations and sectors of society can benefit from the green transition, as long as social considerations are properly included in our decision making. Significant transformation of global economic structures is inevitable, which provides a substantial opportunity to include co-benefits for all communities and avoid stranded industries or regions being left behind. Highlighting those positive aspects of the transition may also help to make it more appealing for society as a whole.

Nature

Safeguarding and restoring natural ecosystems and employing nature-based solutions to address the interlinked crises of climate change and biodiversity loss was a key theme of COP26. Utilising nature-based solutions will allow us to adapt and mitigate climate impacts, whilst simultaneously delivering benefits for wider society and biodiversity. This in turn will help rebuild robust and resilient ecosystems that provide us with the myriad ‘ecosystem services’ we need to survive. By placing climate action within the wider agenda of protecting the natural world we will be able to take advantage of the synergies between them.

Circular Economy

Humanity’s relationship with resources, materials, and products is the cause of significant pressures on the climate, nature, and the wider environment. Although the circular economy was not one of the themes for COP26’s programme of negotiations, the concepts it represents will be crucial to achieving our aspirations for tackling climate change. 

Adaptation & Resilience

Climate action has historically focused on mitigating the likelihood of climate change, rather than adapting to its consequences. That approach is no longer appropriate for a world which has already experienced significant changes to its climate and ecology. Limiting the worst effects will be crucial for all countries and communities, even while greater action will be needed to support vulnerable nations. While our ambition for adaptation and resilience must increase, a multi-functional systems approach may make both goals more accessible.

Science & Innovation

A crucial element of pursuing science-led policy is to ensure that we are asking the right questions: after decades of sustainability frameworks with mixed results, there is finally a recognition of multiple crises connected by interlinking natural systems. However, we must still ensure that we use the right evidence to find solutions to those crises.

Transport

Even with some of the most dramatic restrictions on human mobility in the last century, the drop in emissions we saw during the pandemic was not sufficient to put us on a pathway towards ‘net zero’. Our mobility systems are so deeply interwoven with carbon-intensive materials that we require fast, nuanced, and transformative change across the ways we travel. While positive change is beginning to take off in some areas, action to decarbonise transport must accelerate to meet our ambitions within the tightly-contracted timelines we are facing.

Cities & Regions

Effective action against climate change relies on delivery at every scale. Cities and regions provide a major opportunity for piloting policies and scaling them up to wider contexts, while also holding responsibility for a number of policy areas which have the potential to address interconnected climate pressures.

What next?

There are still many months until COP27, during which time the UK remains in the spotlight offered by the COP26 Presidency. It is vital that the Government takes this opportunity to continue the ratcheting-up of ambitions, driving global climate action and ensuring a UK-wide response to the climate crisis which amounts to transformative change.

Scrutiny from the environmental sciences will continue through the IES, as we monitor not only the delivery of existing commitments, but also take opportunities to push for increased ambition wherever possible.

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