The latest report from the UK’s Climate Change Committee has criticised the government for its continued investment in fossil fuels, claiming the country has ceded its leadership role in the climate fight.

Wildfires in farm fields, Essex
Wildfires in farm fields, Essex - Adobe Stock

The 2023 Progress Report urged the government to return Net Zero to ‘top billing’, pointing to missed opportunities to speed the energy transition in the wake of the war in Ukraine and the accompanying energy crisis. It claimed that support for new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea as well as a new coal mine in Cumbria risked undermining the progress made by the UK during its COP26 Presidency and the Glasgow Climate Pact. In a letter to the prime minister that accompanied the report, CCC chairman Lord Deben criticised the government’s policy decisions and urged it to assume a leading role once again in tackling the climate emergency.

“The failure to act decisively in response to the energy crisis and build on the success of hosting COP26 means that the UK has lost its clear global climate leadership while game-changing interventions from the US and Europe, which will turbocharge growth of renewables, are leaving the UK behind,” he said. “Inaction has been compounded by continuing support for further unnecessary investment in fossil fuels.

“Our children will not forgive us if we leave them a world of withering heat and devastating storms where sea level rises and extreme temperatures force millions to move because their countries are no longer habitable. None of us can avoid our responsibility. Delay is not an option.”

According to the report, the Climate Change Committee now has significantly less confidence than last year that the UK will meet its climate goals from 2030 onwards. It criticised the government’s reliance on technological solutions that have not been deployed at scale – such as hydrogen and carbon capture – while being too slow with tree planting programmes, energy retrofit and the rollout of heat pumps: solutions that are considered ‘low regret’ and which are ready for deployment now.

Lord Deben has been CCC chair since 2012 -

“The lesson of my ten years at the Climate Change Committee is that early action benefits the people of this country and helps us to meet the challenges of the coming decades more cheaply and more easily,” said Lord Deben. “Yet, even in these times of extraordinary fossil fuel prices, government has been too slow to embrace cleaner, cheaper alternatives and too keen to support new production of coal, oil and gas. There is a worrying hesitancy by ministers to lead the country to the next stage of Net Zero commitments.

“I urge the government to regroup on Net Zero and commit to bolder delivery. This is a period when pace must be prioritised over perfection.”

Other issues outlined in the report included a lack of support for decarbonising industry, with ‘no clear policy’ for the production of green steel, despite lofty government ambitions. The report also urged for reform of the planning system to enable essential upgrades to the electricity grid and other Net Zero infrastructure.

Alongside the criticisms of Lord Deben, several other high profile voices from industry and academia weighed in on the content of the Progress Report and the shortcomings of the government.

Prof Mike Berners-Lee of the Lancaster Environment Centre, said: “This report is a depressing account of the UK government’s failure to honour its commitments. The rest of the world, along with UK citizens, are realising that when the UK government commits to something, it doesn’t always mean much. Promises of strong climate action, followed by such a lame response, along with approval of new coal, oil and gas, are an insult and make the UK look both ridiculous and insincere.”

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald FREng, director of the Centre for Climate Repair, University of Cambridge, said: “The report of the Climate Change Committee is chastening – we are simply not moving fast enough. And this is in a time of incredibly high fossil fuel prices. The time to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency is now. Alarmingly, installation rates of energy efficiency measures fell further in 2022. This has to be addressed since not only is it an effective way to reduce emissions, it will also help consumers reduce their energy bills which we know are crippling for many right now.

“I remain perplexed as to why the government is delaying the decision on hydrogen for heating in homes. It is now widely accepted that it is much better to bolster investment in the grid and provide incentives for heat pumps; the number of wind turbines needed for provision of heating is about 6X if hydrogen is the energy vector instead of electricity and heat pumps.”

Prof Dave Reay, chair in Carbon Management, executive director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, University of Edinburgh, said: “Like a bad magician, the government seems to think that hand waving and shiny climate tech can distract everyone from the reality that they are failing on climate change. Yes, the scale and speed of emissions cuts required is eye-watering and, yes, the government has a lot of other crises on its plate. Yet this ongoing failure to grasp the nettle of Net Zero delivery puts the future of our entire society at risk.”