From Hero to Zero: Why the United Kingdom’s climate policy falls short
Photo: Jiamin Huang | unsplash

From Hero to Zero: Why the United Kingdom’s climate policy falls short

The UK was once a climate leader, but its latest policy changes undermine the COP28 targets

In Dubai at COP28, the most recent global climate conference, countries decided to triple global renewable energy capacity and double the energy efficiency improvement rate by 2030. We’re now in the crucial phase of national policymakers having to implement the targets they agreed upon.

The UK notched its lowest-ever score in the 2024 Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), most notably in the Climate Policy and Renewable Energy categories. Given this unimpressive performance, what does the COP28 outcome mean for the UK’s domestic climate policy? And how is the current government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak slowing down the UK’s climate ambitions? Let’s take a closer look.

The UK: From frontrunner to running behind

While the UK was once a high-performing country in the CCPI, its rank has dropped a staggering 15 places in the last 3 years: from 5th in the 2021 edition to its current 20th.

The UK’s climate ambitions are set out in its Climate Change Act a national framework for climate change mitigation that was adopted in 2008. This policy sets a legally binding target of a 100% emissions reduction by 2050. The Act requires the government to set 5-year carbon budgets. Currently, the target is to reduce GHG emissions by around 77% by 2035. The legal framework also requires the government to regularly assess the risk of climate change and develop a National Adaptation Program. The Climate Change Committee, an independent body that advises the government on climate policy,monitors whether the government is meeting its targets.

The Climate Change Act was one of the world’s first examples of long-term legislation of this type. It ensures accountability, is widely backed by different stakeholders, and is unique in its legal enshrinement. France, Germany, and Mexico, inspired by the Act, introduced similar national legislative frameworks.

Climate policy rollback announced

Despite the seemingly positive implications mentioned above, recent announcements by Sunak and his government seem to be moving in the wrong direction. The intent is to roll back and delay several key climate policies, hampering the country’s climate ambition.

In his September 2023 speech on net zero, Sunak announced that a 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles would be postponed to 2035. In the spring 2024 budget, the government maintained this discouraging course by continuing to grant tax cuts on petrol and diesel, which together would be enough to fund the entire National Health Service for a year.

In September, Sunak also announced that the phase-out of gas boiler sales, originally set for 2035, would be relaxed, despite the UK already having one of the lowest heat pump installation rates. On top of that, a policy requiring landlords to better insulate their rental properties was lifted.

These recent announcements put the UK further off track to meet the COP28 targets and hurt the chances of achieving the Climate Change Act targets.

Many countries agree to phase out fossil fuels, while the UK ramps production

At COP28, all parties agreed to move away from fossil fuels, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions. While a phase-out was not explicitly mentioned, the agreement was the first time this many countries had called for a transition away from all fossil fuels and for accelerated action within the next decade to reach net zero by 2050.

It was a crucial step, as the global campaign #KeepItInTheGround warns that current fossil fuel projects worldwide will exhaust global carbon budgets, and emphasizes the need to accelerate a just energy transition.

COP28 agreement not reflected in UK domestic policy

While the UK supported the text agreed upon at COP28, the support has yet to be reflected in UK domestic policy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The government just granted 24 new licenses to companies such as Shell and BP so they can drill for fossil fuels in the North Sea. The profits from these projects, like all other profits from gas and oil production in the UK, incur a 40%tax rate, one of the world’s lowest. The government also approved the construction of a new domestic coalmine, the first in over 40 years.

New fossil fuel infrastructure poses economic risks, such as over-investment and the creation of stranded assets. In other words, the capital invested in this infrastructure will lose value in the process of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. The world today is moving in a different direction: renewable energy.

Tripling renewable energy

At COP28, countries set a target of tripling global renewable energy capacity by 2030, paving the way for an energy transition. The UK, though a historic oil and gas producer, was once considered a leader in the energy transition. From 2015 to 2017, the CCPI ranked the UK 6th in the Renewable Energy category. But since then, the UK’s performance has fallen sharply; in the latest CCPI, it plummeted to 44th.

So, why is the UKs renewable energy deployment slowing?

The answers lay both in the increased cost of materials due to the current international situation and the current government’s lack of political will to lift policy barriers. Planning issues and the lack of grid connection access are also hampering the deployment of solar, as well as onshore and offshore wind. The stalled installation of offshore wind is embodied by how not a single new offshore wind project was approved in 2023.

The UK government introduced several policy packages to address the existing problems; such as aiming to reduce the time to connect offshore infrastructure to the grid. But the Climate Change Committee clearly asserted that, while the UK’s offshore wind and solar targets are in line with the COP28 target, onshore wind urgently needs an increase, as the government falls short of its renewables targets.

Improve energy efficiency through better home insulation

Along with a just energy transition, energy efficiency improvement is an effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The transition brings myriad benefits, such as improving the health of house residents and increasing industrial productivity.

At COP28, policymakers from 130 countries, including the UK, committed to “doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvement from around 2% to over 4% per year by 2030.” The International Energy Agency noted that action is particularly needed in the industrial and building sectors.

So then, how has Prime Minister Sunak’s responded to this call? Instead of ramping up ambitions, he recently softened the government commitment to phase out the sale of gas boilers by 2035. And the UK government will no longer require that landlords insulate their homes to a higher standard.

The CCPI country experts point out that policies such as home insulation schemes and switching from fossil fuel heating to electric heating or heat pumps are a major opportunity to improve energy efficiency.

Can the UK become a high performer again?

As a developed country with a favourable record in climate leadership, the UK has the responsibility and opportunity to again show strong climate leadership. The UK must implement the COP28 goals and align its domestic policies with the Climate Change Act. It can achieve through faster expansion of renewable energy, stopping further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, and improving its energy efficiency, especially in the building sector.

In June, the Climate Change Committee will publish its updated report on the UK’s climate progress. The update will provide an overview of whether the country is back on track. If the UK closes the existing implementation gap between the COP28 targets and domestic policies, it can alter its trajectory and improve its ranking in the next CCPI.

For more information on the UK’s performance, see the CCPI country profile


Merle Clara Riebandt